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Raise the Red Lantern
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by Jay Seaver

"It's tough to be the junior wife."
5 stars

The world of "Raise the Red Lantern" is alien to most Westerners, and probably even to modern Chinese. It is a world where architecture and ritual exist to support one man's polygamy, but the intrigues underneath are familiar - no matter what the country or era, the urge to be the one someone wants is close to universal.

It's 1920, and Songlian (Gong Li) has married out of anger. Her father's death has yanked her from university, so she decides to sell herself to a rich man. Thus she finds herself in a city-like estate, the fourth wife competing for the favor of a Master (Ma Jingwu) whose nightly choice of which bed to share determines who gets to tset the menu for dinner and who receives a foot massage, among other things; like much of the wives' lives on this estate, this process is surrounded by ritual - the raising of a red lantern outside their doors.

Songlian learns that this is a contentious process her first night there: Third Wife Meishan (He Caifei), a popular opera singer before marrying, claims illness and demands the Master's attention; Meinshan's power plays have the second purpose of gaining her the attention of the handsome Dr. Gao (Cui Zhihgang). Second Wife Zhouyan (Cao Cuifen) is much more friendly, while First Wife Yuru (Jin Shuyuan) acts as a kind of elder statesman among them. In addition, the maid assigned to Songlian, Yan'er (Kong Lin), has her own crush on the Master; any harmony between these women is likely to be short-lived or cover for something else.

The details of this world may seem strange, but the core idea - outwardly friendly women fight over a man via gossip and backstabbing - is likely to be familiar. Once the audience sees that is what's going on, everything makes a lot more sense. We're thus able to get a handle on who the true villain of the piece is (or at least, who comes closest to filling that role), and the relationship between Songlian and Meishan becomes especially interesting to watch: Meishan's motivations for hating the younger girl are transparent, as are the means she uses to try and keep the Master's attention, and in fact they're so simple that the pair can work around it because they're both too self-aware to be controlled by something quite so petty.

That level of self-awareness is not always a good thing, though it makes Gong Li's Songlian interesting to watch. She is, as the other women continually point out, "educated", and she's got a sometimes ugly sense of entitlement to go along with it. She's still somewhat naive about the everyday politics of her situation, though, making for a dangerous combination. There are still aspects of her that are likable; she doesn't blind herself to a person's better qualities because of personal animosity, for instance, and there's a curious streak to her. She's genuinely appalled when her immaturity or naiveté hurts others. Still, we can't ever lose sight of the fact that she makes her own bed and generally out of anger. As good as Gong is throughout the entire movie, it all builds on the film's first scene, where Songlian's mother (Ding Weimin) has laid the situation out and Songlian lashes out. We don't know, yet, that this girl has been to university, and we never get an idea of what her exact ambitions were as an independent woman, but we see that she feels some sort of potential has been ripped away. We understand the anger that motivates her decision to become a rich man's concubine, even if it is an overreaction.

The rich man, himself, is not nearly as well-defined a figure, by design. I don't think he's ever named, and Zhang never shows him to us directly - he's out of frame, or we see his back, or there is some sort of screen between us that distorts his face. He's just part of a system that keeps women down, jockeying for position among themselves. He's just an extension of the estate, where each wife has her own chambers and servants, with paths connecting them and dozens of customs regulating behavior. The architecture of the place is fascinating, resembling a city more than a private home, and while it's frequently beautiful, especially with the lanterns lit, every path seems circular; there's no way out. It pits the wives against each other. Then there's the locked shed which asymmetrically hovers above everything. Bad things happen there, we can tell.

The women who compete for the Master's attention are all fairly straightforward characters in retrospect, but the way Zhang and the actresses reveal them is still engrossing. Jin Shuyuan doesn't actually do much as Yuru, the first wife; we can see disdain for the new young things her husband brings in every few years but also the knowledge that her position is secure and she doesn't have to play games. Cao Cuifen's Zhouyan is gentle and gregarious, and it takes us a while to realize she's using that. She's not just a cold manipulator using honeyed words as weapons, though; there's a legitimate desperation to her as she sees her position eroded by younger women with the youth she can't ever get back. He Caifei gives a nicely understated performance as Meishan, revealing facets other than the bitchiness we see up front without ever telegraphing that this means she's not just a vain, pampered princess. And while there's not a lot of subtlety to Kong Lin's Yan'er, she's an intriguing mirror image to Songlian - she wants nothing more than what Songlian resents settling for, and thus resents her mistress in turn.

"Raise the Red Lantern" is a fascinating film; not only is it beautiful, but there's a purpose to the beauty; it gilds the cage Songlian finds herself in. I have a quibble or two with the ending - it ties things up in a way that I've never found satisfying - but what leads up to it is fascinating. Gong Li makes what can sound like an unsympathetic character intriguing, and the context just makes things even more interesting.

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originally posted: 06/30/07 09:45:09
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User Comments

6/08/10 Flathead King One of the greatest films ever made 5 stars
8/30/07 harley Gong Li is amazing 5 stars
10/05/05 Jeanne Gorgeous, heartbreaking, stomach-churning: my God, what women will do when they're cornered 5 stars
9/16/05 Laura Lee Macleod exquisite 5 stars
8/31/04 DM Don't listen to mimi. She's stupid. 5 stars
10/30/03 mimi ** 1 stars
5/22/02 DrChumley Incredible emotion and beautiful cinematography 5 stars
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  13-Mar-1992 (PG)



Directed by
  Yimou Zhang

Written by
  Ni Zhen

  Li Gong
  Caifei He
  Jingwu Ma
  Cuifen Cao
  Zhao Qi
  Jin Shuyuan

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