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Truly Great Movies – Raise the Red Lantern

December 14, 2009

I’m not normally a huge foreign film fan, but Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern is one of a short list of films I can watch at least once a year.   Zhang Yimou is one of the few Chinese film-makers to really make an impact on world cinema, and rarely does one of his films disappoint.   Raise the Red Lantern is adapted from Sue Tong’s book Wives and Concubines, and its subject matter is one that Western audiences might find baffling and feudalistic.   Set during the 1920s in the twilight of China’s Warlord Era (before the fall of the final dynasty and the rise of communism), Lantern‘s heroine is Songlian, a young girl whose family is bankrupt.   Her career options are limited.  She can either join the ranks of the lower class servants, or she can become a concubine,  Fourth Mistress to the wealthy Master Chen.  Not much of a choice, is it?  Women are property, and a property’s only value lies in what it can do for the master.

The coveted red lanterns

At first, this lifestyle seems pampered and austere.  Songlian’s abode is comforting, well-furnished and she is waited on hand and foot.  Soon, however, she begins to uncover the female heirarchy lingering beneath the surface and becomes drawn into a dangerous drama brewing among the other “mistresses” of the house.  Songlian discovers that power in her new world is fleeting, and based on earning the master’s wandering attentions.  The chosen “mistress” is marked and honored each evening by the placement of glowing red lanterns outside her door.  At first, Songlian has master’s undivided attentions, and rules over the other women with detached indifference.  Once this position is threatened, however, she begins to see the icicles lurking beneath the other mistresses soft, petal-like smiles.   The battle to be favored mistress consumes her, and becomes her undoing.

There are three other “mistresses” to contend with,  each with her own unique story.  First mistress Yuru is older and forgotten, having done her duty by bearing a son.  Yuru is content to be forgotten.   Second mistress Zhuoyun at first befriends Songlian, telling her of the ways of the household, yet she hides a dangerous demeanor beneath her plain exterior.   Third mistress, the former opera singer Meishan, is beautiful and beneath her fun-loving ways hides the most tragic tale of all. 

Songlian's Sorrow

Songlian’s tactic to keep permanent favor with Master Chen backfires, and she learns the harsh life of a traitor and feels the wind of the oustiders sweep through her isolated world.  

Raise the Red Lantern’s insular world is a masterpiece of lighting, camera angles and well-chosen close ups.  Yimou’s movie never leaves the courtyard of  the Chen house, yet seems epic in scale.  The use of color defines characters the way no words can. 

Gong Li (perhaps best known to American audiences as the love interest in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice) is a picture of controlled rage.  She begins as an educated and moral woman, but loses all she values in a system that cannot value her in return.

Another standout is He Caifei as Third Mistress, an opera singer whose talent, in a perfect world, could have been her escape from the system, but instead is stuck in a loveless, lifeless existence.  She covers her sorrow in the classic performer’s mask.

Songlian’s tale is one that will haunt you long after viewing Raise the Red Lantern.  The film’s emotional depth and scope is what makes it a Truly Great Movie.

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