Raise the Red Lantern tells the story of a young university dropout who marries an ageing clan elder with multiple wives. The red lanterns are raised outside the home of the wife with whom the master chooses to spend his night. It becomes clear early on that the wife whose home the Master chooses most frequently controls the household. This unquestionable masterpiece was filmed by Zhang Yimou and completes his Confucian trilogy which opened with Red Sorghum and Ju Dou. All three of these films starred Gong Li who was propelled to superstardom. She is considered one of the most successful actresses in China today. Raise the Red Lantern is an unquestionable masterpiece and I shall now elaborate on, as Fry & Laurie put it ‘the whyness’.
No film had a more startling effect in the west than Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern, which rushed Gong Li, a star after Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, into the superstar league. Li plays a student in northern China in the 20s who agrees to become the fourth wife of an ageing clan leader. Only 19, she finds herself confined to the old man’s palatial complex, where his other wives conspire with courtiers and intrigue is permanently in the air. Derek Malcolm
I am working my way through Derek Malcolm’s Top 100 Movies. I decided quite by chance to watch the oldest one on the list. Malcolm describes this film as “a marvellously structured, richly imagined and well-acted piece of work, with a central performance that holds the attention throughout.”. For me, this is spot on, though I would add that each of the performances were immaculate. Saifei He as Meishan (Third Wife) blew me away consistently, especially during her two or three opera performances. Cuifen Cao as Zhuoyan (Second Wife) was wonderful as the conniving outwardly friendly yet power hungry player. I was especially moved also by Lin Kong as Yan’er, robbed of place as Fourth Mistress by Songlian. Their enemy status confirmed early in the film, they would ultimately be each other’s demise.
Moreover, by filming mostly in long shot in lingering deep-focus takes, Zhang sought to suggest the isolation of the Chinese authorities and their entrenched positions regarding reform, while the consistent use of delimiting framing devices reinforced the overall sense of repression. However, this was also very much a film about both the historical and contemporary status of Chinese women. For all the delicate artistry of the décor and visuals, this is an uncompromising study of the part that women play in their own subjugation within a society that denigrates them from birth. Empire
In addition to a stellar cast, the location was absolutely stunning. The picture was filmed in the Qiao Family Compound. The tourist map is included below just to give you a scale of the thing. Throughout the film we get to see a lot of the compound, my favourite moment in the film being up above (near the Climate and Season part of the below map) where Gong Li hears the Young Master (her stepson) playing flute. There is a wonderful shot when they are parting where they turn around from outside both entrances and stare back at each other through the building.
This is a tale of power and the lengths to which people are willing to stoop to obtain it. It is told beautifully, and colourfully. The shots are long and do indeed exacerbate the loneliness of the principal characters in view of the enormity of the sacrifice they are making. The cinematography is outstanding, the music is wonderful and the moral is unclear. This is a monumental film which exhibits a wide panoply of human emotion. I encourage you to read Derek Malcolm’s review of this, which does it true justice. There is a reason why it appeared in 36 polls of most important films of the 1990s!