(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon.)
Raise the Red Lantern is one of the most extraordinarily beautiful movies I have ever seen. The sets are exquisite tableaux carefully arranged, decorated and framed, and then shot from an attractive angle. The scene as they drag the third mistress, kicking and screaming to the tower of death, with the snow falling so peacefully onto the rooftops was chilling in its effect. The startling blaze of color, light and detail within the houses set against the drab simplicity of the courtyards, continually provided a contrast between life within the protection and at the favor of the master, and life without. This dichotomy is symbolized in the vibrant red lamps and the somber blue hue of the lamps when they are covered. In this manner, the mistresses are controlled. I was also struck by the sonorous beauty of the accompanying Chinese music.
But more compelling than the beauty of the film is the story Director Zhang Yimou tells, a tale of paternity and imperious privilege set in early twentieth century China. He begins with the newly arrived fourth mistress, 19-year-old Songlian, a university student who, because of the death of her father, is forced to quit school. She chooses to marry a man of wealth. She is warned by her stepmother that she will be a concubine. She replies, isn't that our fate? Her cynicism and then her robust energy in seeking her ascendancy over the other sisters engages us and we identify with her struggle.
What is extraordinary about Zhang's direction is how easily and naturally the personalities of the characters are revealed. The first mistress ("big sister") is too old to be of any sexual interest to the master, yet she is the mother of the eldest son. The second mistress, who has given the master only a daughter, still dreams of having a son. Her devious schemes and plots are hidden by smiles and fake good will toward her sisters. The third mistress, an opera singer still vibrant and beautiful (in a fascinating performance by the intriguing Caifei He), uses her allure in vying for the master's attention. Songlian, in spite of herself, finds herself caught up in the competition with the others.
Gong Li, who plays Songlian, is very beautiful with a strength of character that one quite naturally admires. She has the gift, as does, for example, Julia Roberts, of being able to express a wide range of emotion with just a glance of her very expressive face.
Serving as a foil to the mistresses, and perhaps as the most poignant victim of the concubine system, is the servant girl Yan'er, played with a compelling veracity by Kong Lin. She is occasionally (how shall I say this for Amazon?) "touched," to use Songlian's term, by the master, and so she dreamed of being the fourth mistress. But when the fourth mistress arrives, her dreams are shattered, and in her jealousy she hates Songlian and plots against her. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when Songlian, thinking Yan'er has stolen her flute, forces open the servant girl's room and finds it flooded with.... Well, you should see.
Note well that the master is only hazily observed. He is a personage, a man of wealth. That is enough to know about him. He is as interchangeable as the harem masters on a beach of elephant seals. But because he has wealth, he can engage concubines who must compete with one another through him to find their station in life. One gets a sense of what it might be like in the harem system practiced by gorillas and the sheiks and warlords of old. One pleases the master not because one loves the master (although one does of course because humans tend to love their masters) but because in pleasing the master one rises above the others. Thus the triumphant call, "Light the lanterns in the third house!"
Most people no doubt lament the life of the mistresses. Yet women in poor places may wish such a life upon themselves. But concubines are just prostitutes, really, one might say, trapped by a system of male privilege. But I would remind those who see only that, that for every wife the "master" has, that is one wife another man will not have. The system does NOT favor males. It favors wealth and privilege. In such a system there are many men without wives, fomenting unrest, which is why modern states forbid polygamy.
What does a man do with the capital he accumulates or inherits? If the system allows, he spends it on women and the assurance of his paternity. And why is that possible? Because many women--Songlian is our example--would rather be the fourth wife of a rich man than the first and only wife of a poor man. Many women would rather be used by a man of wealth than rule the household of a nerd. This is the way humans are, and any sexist interpretation of this movie misses this truth.
The real horror depicted here, though, is in the brutality used to maintain the system, not in the polygamy itself. The women who follow the rules and beget the master's children, especially if they are sons, enjoy a pampered and secure existence Those who do not are dealt with severely, branded as mad, or even murdered. Note the similar experience of the wives of Henry VIII, for example, within the English system of serial monogamy.
This is a great movie, like a timeless novel fully realized, directed by a visual genius, from a script of great psychological power. Don't miss this one. It's one of the best ever made.