Directed by Zhang Yimou Raise the Red Lantern was released in 1991 and, despite censorship and a rough reception at home, was warmly welcomed in the West (Yimou received a Silver Lion for best director at the Venice Film Festival in 1991). The story is inspired by the novel Wives and Concubines (by Su Tong) and depicts Northern China in the 1920s in the thrall of a cultural revolution. Gong Li stars as Songlian – the fourth wife of an elderly landlord; a college student who, due to her fathers death, has been married off by her stepmother to a local lord. It is with tremendous frustration that this woman, who had hopes of using her education to broaden her horizons, now finds herself reduced to the role of an heir-bearing concubine, trapped in a palace at the beck and call of her husband.
Immersed in the world of Raise the Red Lantern one experiences a falling through time to find oneself surrounded by an ancient, labyrinthine palace that acts as both a physical and a mental prison. The tale appears a cruel inversion of the stereotypical western fairytale. The lone young woman who marries a rich lord is set up for descent rather than an elevation of her person and position. Instead of being released, like Cinderella, from the shackles of her mundane life – Songlian is uprooted and bound to a different kind of prison. The mystical world she enters is literally sealed away from change by stone walls. Slowly but surely the heroine’s reason, will and spirit suffocate under the oppressive hierarchy, the ludicrous obedience to backward tradition and the female rivalry that her arrival ignites.
The music of Naoki Tachikawa and Jiping Zhao is poignant and haunting in its shrill echo, permeating, like rain, the silent edifice of the palace. Visually this film is a case of ‘each frame a painting’. The scenography of Lun Yang and Fei Zhao is breathtaking. The camera work relishes in the spacious, monumental grandeur of the palace’s architecture – which, in turn, lends itself easily to bold compositions and striking contrasts. Each long take is elaborate and relies heavily on the monolithic and at the same time ornate geometric structure of the palace with its solid grey walls, intricate window frames and a network of tiled, labyrinthine rooftops. Over time the openness and vastness of the landscape proves deceptive and the perpetual backdrop of grey stone slowly builds up a sense of claustrophobia. The ambience of the film is built and relies on contrasts, both visually and narratively – from the boisterous silk gowns, the pulsating red lanterns, to the alienating white snow and the placating blue of nightfall. Here visual language is engulfed by colour, especially red that saturates drama and ambiguity. Colour fuses with light, filling the screen space and practically pouring out of it. With this overflow Yimou tests their assigned symbolic meaning and emotional expressiveness in a scenery deprived of nature, where seasons are hardly distinguishable and the turn of the year is marked by virgin white snow.
Yimou’s film provides a platform for a western viewer with little to no in-depth knowledge of China to experience (at a safe distance) the atavistic microcosm of Chinese feudal tradition, gender politics and custom in the light of a social revolution. The director concentrates this social and historical contrast in the character of Soglian and presents us with both a rich, dramatic story and a visually compelling cinematic tapestry – allowing us to savor and reflect on the utter otherness of this universe without the fetish feel common to the treatment of asian culture and ‘the orient’ by western cinematography.
This tribute composition has some wonderful shots in it: