Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991)

A few nights ago I caught a good bit of the immensely over-the-top spectacle that was the opening ceremony of the Olympics.  Its brainchild was the famed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, and you have to consider that ceremony the labor of love to end all labor of loves.  Apparently it was choreographed and practiced for eight hours a day for months on end, and you look at the sights and sounds and colors and choreography of that ceremony and you really get the sense that Zhang’s vision was made reality as accurately as possible.  The recent technological innovations that made such an elaborate extravaganza possible are another story entirely, but needless to say Zhang outed himself as something of a master of the visual medium, and his attention to detail and near-obsession with symbolic images were nearly awe-inspiring.  If he could do that with what basically amounted to an unfathomably elaborate fireworks show, I was very interested to see how he handled image and symbol in his bread and butter, the feature film.  So I got my hands on what’s probably his most famous film, “Raise the Red Lantern,” and after watching that, you can basically throw that opening ceremony in the garbage.  That was an over-the-top (albeit entertaining) spectacle of a fireworks show.  This movie is what should really be considered art.

A movie about the politicking and trials of the concubines of a wealthy man in 1920s China is a tough sell for mainstream Western audiences, and a slow pace and even slower story doesn’t help matters.  But my goodness, what a way Zhang tells his story.  Sure it’s “slow,” but this is the slow and barren life of a new concubine who’s soul and vigor has basically been stolen from her by a cruel ringmaster of a “husband”, so a languid pace to a movie like this is merely step one.  There’s the pace, the set design, the contrast of colors…story almost becomes irrelevant, because this is Zhang Yimou’s 2-hour portrait of mood itself: a state of mind influenced almost entirely by what we see (and hear) rather than a kind of plot progression.  This did get an Oscar nomination for best foreign film for a reason, so justice was served there at least.  In terms of aesthetics, I really believe this is one of the finest examples of visual cinema I’ve yet seen.

I was worried about the pace when things got underway..the way Gong Li, as the new educated concubine, basically sat and delivered her lines like a young and beautiful statue in that monotone voice.  I figured the movie would be all style (beautiful images) and no substance (story, dynamic performances, etc.).  And turns out, that’s pretty much what it is.  And that’s just why the movie’s the masterpiece it is.  So much of this movie is the four wives standing and looking morose as the red lanterns go up outside one wife’s house (where the husband will spend the night), or Gong Li wandering throughout that fortress of an estate (as we mainly see her in long shots, from a distance), or colors ranging from icy blue outside to vibrant red inside.  But this is a story about the emotional isolation of these women under the sexual and patriarchal authority of the husband, so the statue-like emotionlessness of Gong Li or the awe-inspiring cinematography of the distinctively barren yet beautiful estate from season to season is perfectly appropriate.  Everything from a night spent with the husband to meals to punishments for a servant daring to aspire towards something bigger than her current station in life to revenge involving scissors and an ear are all portrayed very matter-of-factly, business-like, and with no emotional cues.  These are just days in the life of these concubines and their servants (for the husband is rarely given screen time of his own), without emotion and really without much purpose.  It’s really quite extraordinary that such beautiful images that you’d think would be busting with life ironically signify such mundanity, but somehow Zhang does it.

I mean, the colors alone might just rival those of Kurosawa’s “Ran” as the most beautiful and distinctive colors I’ve seen used in a film.  There’s Songlian’s (Gong Li) room, splashed with red to an ungodly level with lantern after lantern, which should signify extreme sexual passion as she’s now guaranteed a night with her husband.  But then consider later, when she breaks a cardinal rule and her lanterns are silenced with dusty black covers.  That same room is now gray, barren, and utterly lifeless.  Before, Songlian’s (or Fourth Mistress as she’s called by just about everybody) beauty worked in conjunction with the warmth of the room.  Now, she sits hunched over in her seat, craving the foot massage now denied her as if she’s in withdrawal, now swallowed by this prison cell of a room and seeming older and more frail than the already-old and frail First Mistress.  Or there’s the gray morning of the even grayer walled exterior of the estate (later shot magnificently in the snow), as Songlian explores her new surroundings.  The atmosphere, the walls, and the pathways are drab, but oddly beautiful in just how distinctive they are, how the roof-based passageways are like an endless maze.  And then this drab exterior is punctured by the Third Mistress, that former opera singer wearing a red dress that stands out like a blood spot on a white doctor’s coat, singing her song that permeates through the whole compound.  It’s images like this, among many others, that stick with you for a long, long time.  I’m not sure what a lot of them mean, like the Third Mistress’ song from afar…maybe the hint of individuality in a life of such lifelessness, maybe the cruel contradiction between the lively colors of the outfit amongst the truly drab exterior that’s spawned it, I don’t know.  But it’s hella pretty, and that’s good enough for me 😛 .  And Zhang’s use of sounds is distinct and masterful too, I might add.  There’s the sound of those sticks used to massage the feet of the “lucky” mistress permeating through the estate, as if taunting the jealous “losers.”  There’s the Third Mistress’ distinct singing, also taunting the at-first jealous Songlian.  Hell, even the sound of the pipe used to blow out those red lanterns are distinctive, serving as a percussion-like exclamation point when this mistress or that falls from grace when their master tires of them.  This is a movie that relies almost exclusively on sights and sounds, and it’s these sights and sounds that affect the mood of the characters.  Or perhaps it’s the character’s moods that affect how we perceive the sights and sounds.  Either way, if you’re of the ilk that considers cinema to be a purely visual / aesthetic artform, Exhibit One or Two would be “Raise the Red Lantern.”

One of the concepts I studied in my Literary Theory days in college (that I’d very much like to forget 😛 ) is Foucault’s panopticon.  It’s an octagon-shaped prison, but one in which there are no guards or tangible authority figures that are openly visible.  The prisoners obey authority and don’t get out of line because they simply perceive that the authority is there, simply because of a tall tower in the center of the panopticon that may or may not have that mystical authority figure atop it.  Perceived power is the idea of the panopticon, and Foucault was saying that we obey our governments and our authority figures not because we see that authority, but just imply that it’s there and act accordingly.  Well, is “Raise the Red Lantern” not a perfect example of such a panopticon?  The entire movie takes place inside that prison-like compound of elaborate paths and walls and houses, and eventually we feel as confined as the “prisoners.”  Actually, it’s like a bizarre off-shoot of a panopticon in that its prisoners, the Mistresses, form their own kind of government and politics and revolve every motive and action and negotiation around making themselves more desirable in the eyes of the Master.  They might not obey the Master like a prisoner would obey the unseen warden in a traditional prison, but they obey the rules nonetheless, both for survival and their own benefit.  The First Mistress may be the de-facto leader of the Mistresses, and the one Songlian goes to to adjudicate their makeshift trial against the disobedient servant, but the First Mistress is just a puppet ruler.  The Master is the perfect representation of that invisible panopticon authority figure, at least in the audience’s eyes.  We only see him from afar, face almost always concealed.  He’s both a non-entity and an all-encompassing figure of maculine power.  All of the Mistresses (and their servants) revolve their lives around this man who’s rarely there to begin with, and it says a hell of a lot about sexual hierarchy, oppression against women, and an obsession with hedonism and/or materialism.

If the Master is that panopticon-esque invisible authority, then the Mistresses are the prisoners obeying they system.  And that system is one of double-crossing, jealousy, materialistic pleasure, and false appearances.  It’s remarkable to me how Zhang uses such a matter-of-fact eye in portraying the ins and outs of this prison, and yet makes the audience’s perception of that prison so subjective.  We see things the mundane way they are, and yet we’re like Songlian: we’re not sure what to make of things, and indeed nothing’s as it seems.  Take the Third Mistress, for instance.  Our first impression of her (the Master’s impression, mind you) is that she’s a needy, jealous bitch, wanting constant attention by feigning sickness, wearing lavishly red robes and decorating her house to an obscene level, and initially cruelly dismissive of Songlian.  But then we see another side of her: we see a woman who’s been within this obscenely patriarchal mini-society for a long while and wants to reap every reward from it.  It doesn’t say much for her ultimate goals or her status as an independent woman, but we come to understand that she does what she needs to do to succeed.  She’s bitchy towards the other Mistresses because she needs to be, she enables every slutty stereotype by wooing the Master with her singing because she needs to, and she cleverly conceals her affair with the doctor because she knows she needs to, for her very life depends on that one.  She does what she needs to do to survive this system, and in turn she’s a complete expert on that system and those within it.  She even lets Songlian in on the Second Mistress, who we initially perceive as kindly and helpful, but later quietly shows her true colors as the real terror of this place.  True, the Third Mistress doesn’t exactly help the feminist cause in doing everything in her power to win out in the system and get her every materialistic and sexual pleasure, but she knows what she’s doing, and she’s sure of herself, and she might’ve been my favorite character in the entire movie (not to mention her final fate certainly garners our sympathy).

It was fascinating to me how these women basically formed their own society amongst themselves and revolved their lives around these invisible rules put in place by an invisible Master, involving sex, lanterns, and that dreaded locked room on the roof.  The images are beautiful yet emotionally barren, the people are almost kabuki-like in their stiff composure, all making the cutthroat mentalities amongst the women that much more distressing…but also attractive.  It figures that the Second Mistress seems kindly but is really a tyrant, while the Third Mistress seems like a shrill bitch but is really more sensible than any of the others.  Even Songlian, the educated protagonist we’re supposed to identify the most with, finds herself falling right into line with the system and positioning herself to get those lanterns lit.  What a job Zhang Yimou does by making a film seem so objective with such blunt and direct (albeit stunning) shots and images, yet comes out so subjective, so that we’re not sure whether to revile, pity, or revere these mistresses, these prisoners by choice.  This is a magnificent film.



2 comments so far

  1. wkw on

    RtRL is great, one of Zhang’s best. I think Red Sorghum and Ju Dou are just as if not more beautiful to look at though. To Live is also very moving.

  2. Zip on

    ZY and Gong Li are one of the great Actress/Director pairings ever.

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