Raise the Red Lantern (1991) 大紅燈籠高高掛

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Runtime: 125 minutes
Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Gong Li, Ma Jingwu, Jin Shuyuan, Cao Cuifen, He Caifei
Theme: Women (Suppression & Empowerment)

Ratings: IMDB: 8.2/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 96%

Film Festivals:
1991 Venice International Film Festival

Awards:
1991 Venice International Film Festival: Silver Lion for Best Director / Elvira Notari Prize
1992 David di Donatello Italian Film Awards: Best Foreign Language Film
1992 Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Cinematography (Zhao Fei)
1992 New York Film Critics Circle: Best Foreign Language Film
1993 Argentinian Film Critics Association Awards: Silver Condor for Best Foreign Film
1993 British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA): Best Film Not In The English Language
1993 National Society of Film Critics: Best Foreign Language Film / Best Cinematography
1993 London Film Critics Circle: Best Foreign Language Film
1993 Kansas City Film Critics Circle: Best Foreign Language Film
1993 Hundred Flowers Awards: Best Actress / Best Film

Nominated:
1991 Venice International Film Festival: Golden Lion for Best Film
1992 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film
1992 National Board of Review: Best Foreign Film
1993 Independent Spirit Awards: Best Foreign Language Film

The long string of accolades garnered by Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991) is testament of the high quality of the film, an adaptation of Su Tong’s Wives & Concubines, a 1990 novel. Critics studying the film have bandied the probability that this film could contain subtle innuendoes that are in fact a grim criticism of contemporary China. It is not difficult to see why, as the film takes place in an imperial home of 1920s China that bears strict regimentation to law and order, and the frowned-upon attempt of a mistress at provoking an upheaval to the accepted norms. Yet Zhang Yimou has flatly denied that the film contains any criticism of contemporary China. Whether or not Zhang was pressured into making such a stern denial in light of the Chinese censorship clampdown in those years will definitely remain a debatable issue whenever this film is discussed. This is especially because of a huge censorship crackdown of that time. Fellow Fifth Generation filmmakers having been imposed a censures due to omnipresent political subtleties in their films, with The Blue Kite (1993) by Tian Zhuangzhuang being a noteworthy example.

The film is mostly set within the mansion of the Chen clan, and it begins with a close-up shot of the pivotal protagonist Songlian (Gong Li) who would play such an important role in forcing a upheaval in the palace grounds later in the story. We see tears rolling down her eyes as she says, at 02:26, “I’ll marry if I want to. I’ll be a mistress if I have to”, an indication of the forced marriage predicament she is in. This is juxtaposed against the non-diagetic joyful marriage music in the background, before the camera cuts away to the next scene, a wide establishing shot of a jungle with the marriage procession venturing down the central path. Establishing shots are used in 05:49 to capture the vastness of the palace grounds. The rebellious streak and the impudence of the character is evident through her strut across the palace grounds. When quizzed about how she made her way there, she said, “I walked here myself”. We soon learn that she is a university graduate, and we perhaps infer the stereotype of the low importance graduates place on traditional etiquette and norms. She questions the practices of the mansion, “Why on earth are there so many red lanterns?” She is evidently uneasy at the notion of being waited on. Her arrival evokes the jealousy of the other wives, in particular the animosity of the third mistress, who has fallen out of favor given the fact that she is no longer the youngest mistress. The second mistress in comparison appears friendly and welcoming, perpetrating this image through the incessant feeding of rumors to Songlian that the third mistress, an ex-opera singer He Caifei, is in fact a jealous social butterfly who would not abate in her manipulative desire to remain in favor with the husband. The story twists and turns, and we learn who in fact is the most manipulative wolf in sheep’s clothing. A Chinese metaphor to this is used – “Buddha’s face with a heart of a scorpion”. Songlian, ever the rebel, tries to exact her revenge through numerous means (such as “accidentally” shaving off part of someone’s ear while giving a haircut), though she eventually succumbs to the regimentation of the authority in a sad tale that accentuates the power of corruption and normalization that make it a lose-lose battle as she is unable to win over supporters on her side.

The cinematography is frequently stunning, with the misè-en-scène giving the sets that are exquisite tableaux full glory through the establishing shots that capture the vast palace grounds. The lit lanterns against the darkness of the night, for instance, provides a startling blaze of color against the drab monotone of the courtyards. Zhang Yimou also awards attention to symmetrical elements in many scenes throughout the movie that thereby creates a sense of balance. Chilling dissonance is created, too, in the pivotal scenes – such as when Caifei was dragged to the Tower of Death, screaming and struggling, with the snow falling peacefully against the picturesque rooftops.

A clear stylistic device adopted by Zhang Yimou in this film is the omission of a clear shot of the husband’s face throughout the film. Most of the scenes involve the husband backfacing the camera, and in events when he is facing the camera, it is either through a wide shot, out-of-focus, and from a side view. One can only infer the artistic decisions made in having this character remain anonymous and out of the limelight despite being in control – a puppetmaster of sorts pulling the strings – and it is indeed tempting to somehow draw parallels to the Chinese government. There is a perpetual struggle for favor that precludes any unity among wives providing a depressingly apt metaphor for the fragmented civil society of China, post-Cultural Revolution. Songlian is symbolically the individual who rebels against the regime. The master is an apt metaphor for the government, who controls the country whilst trying to stay out of sight oftentimes, and the customs and etiquette the regulatory laws of an archaic system that rewards followers and destroys dissidents.

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