Stark is the best single word to describe Yimou Zhang’s 1991 masterpiece Raise The Red Lantern, which is a standalone work that channels the emotions and fall of a lone character so expertly that it manages to make a perfect, yet poetically heartwrenching film. Raise The Red Lantern is art house world cinema at its highest form and helped to launch the onslaught of Chinese foreign films to the United States, which snagged not only Academy Awards, but the fascination of countless moviegoers as well. Furthermore, Raise The Red Lantern does what few films did in 1991, it focuses solely on the experience of a female character and shies away from sugar coating the absolutely abysmal existence one Chinese woman faced in 1920. From the color palate to the sparse dialogue this is a visionary work that stands on the shoulders of its predecessors in Asian cinema as well as a film that irreversibly changed dramatic filmmaking on a global scale. A film like Raise The Red Lantern is precisely what one would use to argue for the artistic value of cinema.
As noted, the film focues on a female characters experiences in 1920’s China. In the opening shot we are introduced to Songlian (Li Gong) as she is being told by her stepmother off-screen that she must find a husband. In disdain she agrees to become a concubine for the wealthy unnamed Master (Jingwu Ma). This follows with the film being set up into chapters based on each of the seasons of the year. In the opening chapter Summer, Songlian realizes that she is to be the fourth mistress to the Master. The First Mistress Yuru (Shuyuan Jin), whose old age has made her undesirable to the Master, thus leading to her sequestering her time on arbitrary activities away from the other wives. The Second Mistress Zhuoyan (Cuifen Cao) provides the appearances of a caring and loving sister to Songlian, although as the film progresses we come to realize that she is perhaps the most spiteful of all the wives living in the palace. Finally, there is the Third Mistress Meishan (Saifei He) a former opera singer who sees her time as The Master’s favorite wife as fleeting and spends an early portion of the film antagonizing Songlian. However, as the film progresses it is made apparent that Meishan is simply disillusioned with her life in the palace and only acts out to assure her safety in the future. Songlian is assisted by the rebellious and spiteful servant Ya’ner (Lin Kong), who due to her own relations with The Master treats Songlian with very little respect. This stacked jealousy and layered deceit leads to a film about betrayal, self-protection and multiple narratives that are all consuming and narrated to perfection. To elaborate more on the filmic story would be to cloud its viewability. The film evolves from being a distanced and stark film to something very intimate as the guise of tradition falls apart. It is about as experiential as a narrative film can get, and no amount of elaboration on the plot can do the film justice.
The masterful nature of the film is only second to the fact that it is a film about a woman’s experience in early 20th century China. Films like these are few and far between so when they are made it is worth noting. Unfortunately, many of the films focusing on women as main characters can fall flat and are frankly unwatchable, so when I come across a film like Raise The Red Lantern I am instantly elated. The biggest factor about this film is that it passes the Bechdel Test. In order to pass this test, a film has to do the following: It must have a least two women in it, these women must talk to each other, and their conversation must not be about a man. While a large amount of the women’s conversations to revolve around their Master, many conversations do occur about other topics. These topics include Songlian’s time at university, Meishan’s music and the general state of affairs in the palace, which they all agree are rather abysmal. While this little test seems rather arbitrary and easy to pass, it is quite surprising how few films pass this test even in contemporary filmmaking. For example, the multiple part, world-renowned sci-fi series Star Wars fails these parameters. Therefore, when I say that it is a big deal that the film passes this test, I mean it, because it rarely happens. So besides being an absolutely mesmerizing film it is also on the side of feminist discourse in its portrayals of the illogical structures of patriarchal traditions, as well as in its production which allows women actors and their characters a chance in the spotlight. This importance of the women in the film is only greatened by the fact that The Master is rarely shown, and when he is shown it is never a full image of his face.
Raise The Red Lantern is a must watch film, and well worth the praises it has garnered over the years. I think bluray is understood when it comes to obtaining a copy of this film, but at the moment no such option exists, which means a DVD will have to suffice.