Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

D: Zhang Yimou
S: Gong Li, Ma Jingwu

An educated young woman (Gong Li) consents to become the fourth wife of a wealthy man to relieve financial pressures on her stepmother in pre-Revolutionary China. After surviving initial conflicts with household servants and the master's other spouses (who refer to each other as sisters), she discovers that there are layers of conflict and character which remain hidden by first impressions but which reveal the darkness and corruption of the world around her all the more when brought to light.

Zhang Yimou's film was rather overpraised in the West on its initial release, probably as much because of its use of many visual and structrual conventions of European second cinema as its condemnation by Communist authorities in China. Yet it is a solid film which may be read ambiguously as a damning portrait of capitalist excess and exploitation or the stresses on any human beings forced to conform to a system which represses them, and which despite the trappings of an unfamiliar culture, is easily absorbed and understood by Western audiences not versed in the visual or dramatic traditions of its country of origin.

It is an exquisitely decorated and nicely paced film which is careful to allow the strong personalities of its actors, especially Li, to draw convincing characterisations from the script (based upon the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong). The portrayal of female political relations is wonderfully detailed, with an emphasis on well timed hostilities which may mask even more pointed assaults on their standing within the family. The film is careful to create and sustain a convincing world within a world where, isolated from events beyond the walls of their personal 'houses', the women play often dangerous games and vye for the master's attentions not so much for his sake, or even theirs, but their spite of each other.

Structured around a series of deliberately composed images of building exteriors and interiors shot through the changing seasons, the film's visual palette is strikingly effective in capturing the claustrophobia and repression which dominates the story. Using a colour system which liberally employs red in a variety of contexts, it is careful to ensure that despite the overlay of 'realism', it is a stylised and metaphorical exploration of the mindset of the Chinese people, or, given the many allusions to its central character's educational background, the intellectual elite who perceive and identify a need for change.

While there may be nuances here which are impossible to understand without sufficient frames of reference drawn from Chinese history, culture and cinema, the film is generally easy to follow and well suited to marketing within a 'world cinema' context. As with all films from places beyond ordinary experience, it is probably wise however to ensure that it is not mistaken for the irrefutable voice of its country and accepted instead in terms of our awareness of cinematic and cultural conventions. On these terms the film works best as a study of female psychology, and it trades heavily on the performance of its leading lady.

It is worth seeing, but may prove an endurance test for those not immediately enamoured of its pace and tone. Stick with it though, and there are many rewards for attentiveness, though they are primarily intellectual rather than emotional.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.