Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ Raise the Red Lantern


The Facts:

Synopsis: After her father’s death, nineteen year old Songlian is forced to marry the lord of a powerful family. Fifty year old Chen has already three wives, each of them living in separate houses within the great castle. Each night Chen must decide with which wife to spend the night and a red lantern is lit in front of the house of his choice. And each wife schemes and plots to make sure it’s hers. However, things get out of hand…

Stars: Li Gong, Jingwu Ma, Saifei He

Director: Zhang Yimou

Rated: PG

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  The early 90’s were bountiful times for US audiences “discovering” foreign films.  While usually relegated to the small art-house cinemas, the independent film and foreign film market really exploded around the beginning of that decade.  Nowadays foreign films play next door to the latest slapstick comedy and indie films are being given their due.

Chinese films have always been of interest to me and the more they have a historical or cultural angle, the better.  Raise the Red Lantern was a nominee for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars in 1991 and was on numerous critics best of lists for that year and the decade itself.  As I’ve become more varied in my tastes in movies I’m starting to circle back to films like Raise the Red Lantern…films I was too young to see at the time or neglected due to other interests.  How much great cinema have I missed?

Li has been a major force in Asian cinema but has never really showed much interest in being a crossover star in the US.  Despite strong performances in Memoirs of a Geisha and the otherwise insipid Miami Vice, Li works steadily in China and is quite well respected.  She seems to excel at playing characters like she inhabits here – strong willed women that are difficult to like but layered enough to root for.

Opening on a close up of Songlian’s (Li) face as she and an offscreen voice of her stepmother weigh her options on a future, Songlian eventually makes the decision to become one of the wives of a wealthy Master.  Though the Master plays a large role in the movie, we only ever see him in long shots but never his face.  It’s a strong choice for Zhang to direct the movie and utilize the back of an actor’s head more than his face.  It works, though, in illustrating the detached nature of Songlian and her feeling toward the life she indeed chose for herself.

Newly dubbed Fourth Mistress, Songlian is appropriately the fourth wife and we are treated to several showcases of cultural significance regarding the pecking order of the wives.  It’s a theme that was revived in one of the plots portrayed in The Joy Luck Club.  Here though is a movie that is squarely centered on the wives and their various schemes to be in the good favor of the master.

Chief rivals for Fourth Mistress are Mistresses 2 and 3…both with their own secrets and tricks up their sleeves.  It could have easily turned into a cat-fight-y and bitchy battle of the wills amongst the women but there is high art to be had and a not-so-sincere smile is used in place of a nasty quip.  One is never quite sure who the good guy is which makes the developments of the last hour so deliriously watchable.

Fourth Mistress is no heroine and you’d be hard pressed to side with her in most occasions.  She seems unnecessarily selfish and cruel to everyone around here…but maybe that is the American voice in me talking.  We’re so trained in siding with the “new girl” but that is turned on its ear here…she can be as wicked as the next and true to form she sets into motion several major events that threaten to tear the household apart. 

Beautifully shot on a labyrinth of a compound fortress and aided by a score with a chorus of voices that is both ominous and soothing, Raise the Red Lantern is deservedly a high point in Asian cinema.  While it may be a bit too Westernized to truly speak to the cultural points of the era, it was tremendously entertaining and memorable.