Raise the Red Lantern
(China/Hong Kong/Taiwan, 1991)
Raise the Red Lantern is the film that changed my mind about Chinese cinema. When the movie received limited United States distribution in 1992, my interest level was so low that I initially skipped it, even though it was playing at a relatively convenient location. Having watched a few badly made Chinese films on video several years earlier, I was convinced that it wouldn't be worth my while. Then I started reading the reviews, which were uniformly positive (some bordering on rapturous). So, on the day before it was due to end its run at a nearby art-house, I took an afternoon off from work to see it. "Awed" is almost too mild a description for the way I felt. In the wake of Raise the Red Lantern, I began actively seeking out Chinese movies, especially those made by Zhang Yimou and his contemporary, Chen Kiage. At film festivals, I made it a point to sample a few offerings from Asia. And, when there was a special theatrical screening of Raise the Red Lantern at a local movie house, I took the opportunity not only to see the film for a second time on the big screen, but to write a review. I knew from the beginning that Raise the Red Lantern would be somewhere on my Top 100. It wasn't until I began ranking titles that I realized how high. At this time, the film is not available on DVD in North America, which is a shame. I have a laserdisc copy, but I would dearly like to see a DVD special edition of this film. (The recent release of To Live gives me hope.) This movie, perhaps more than any other to ever emerge from China, deserves the best video treatment available. For those who have the patience to sit through a production that takes its time to develop characters and situations (essentially, any movie-lover without ADD), this is a must-see and, when it becomes available, must-own.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The difference between Songlian (Gong Li), the fourth wife of a rich landowner, and the other three spouses, is that she is educated, and has been married (by her mother) against her will. Now, her whole world is reduced to one small compound, and the only people she sees are her husband, his family, and their servants. She is given a maid (Kong Lin) with whom she doesn't get along, and finds her new home to be a cheerless place, despite all the bright colors that adorn the inside walls. It's the master's tradition to light lanterns outside the house of the wife he intends to join for the night. Since Songlian is new to the compound, it is expected that he will spend much of his time with her. However, on their first night together, the master is called away to soothe his pampered third wife (He Caifei), who complains of an ailment. From then on, Songlian realizes that she'll have to resort to deceit and manipulation to retain her husband's interest. And, while she doesn't necessarily appreciate his attentions, she realizes that her status in the household is directly proportional to how highly she is favored. Within days of her arrival, Songlian's relationships with her "sisters" are established. The first wife (Jin Shuyuan), an aging woman with a grown son, does her best to ignore Songlian's presence. She is tolerant -- no more, no less. The third concubine, a beautiful ex-opera singer, is fiercely jealous of Songlian, worried that the master will find his new, educated bride more enticing. However, the second concubine (Cao Cuifen) offers friendship and kindness to the newest member of the family -- or so it initially seems.
Raise the Red Lantern is one of the more sublimely beautiful and openly disturbing films of the 1990s. It is also the best work to date turned in by the actress/director combination of Gong Li and Zhang Yimou -- and this includes other impressive films like Ju Dou and To Live. Raise the Red Lantern is one of those all-too-rare motion pictures capable of enthralling an audience while they're watching it, then haunting viewers for hours (or days) thereafter. With its simple story and complex themes and emotions, Raise the Red Lantern hints at the kind of film a great director like Ingmar Bergman might have made had he attempted a story set in mainland China. I don't think I've ever seen a movie quite like Raise the Red Lantern, and, since I consider it to be a defining example of Chinese movie-making and one of the best films of the '90s, I doubt that I ever will again.
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