China in the 1920s. After her father’s death, 19-year-old Songlian is forced to marry Chen Zuoqian, the 50-year-old head of a powerful family. He already has three wives, each of them living in separate houses within his compound. The competition between the wives is fierce, as their master’s attention carries power, status and privilege. Each night Chen chooses the wife with whom to spend the night and a red lantern is lit in front of the house of his choice. Each wife schemes and plots to make sure she is the chosen one.
Zhang Yimou is a prominent member of the ‘fifth generation’ of Mainland Chinese filmmakers, the collective name given to the graduates of the Beijing Film Academy in the 1980s and the first trained after the Cultural Revolution. Raise the Red Lantern is the third film of Zhang’s ‘Red Trilogy’. The three films each star actress Gong Li and share common themes: forced marriage, oppression, rebellion crushed, self-destruction and authoritarianism. Each focuses on women battling events beyond their control in prerevolutionary, feudal China. Equally, there are wider themes that extend across Zhang’s entire body of work: the crushing of the individual as the price of community stability, Oedipal power structures and suppressed passion. Raise the Red Lantern also displays Zhang’s signature style: balanced framing, bold use of colour and the penetrating close-up. Examined here is the presentation of spectacle and the underlying questions raised by Zhang’s methods of ‘looking’, aspects that give the film a richness and complexity to match its content. For as the director has stated: ‘When tragedy is “made aesthetic”, then it is all the more overpowering’ (cited by Gateward 2001: 40).
After a startling, percussive introduction, a sustained head-shot opens the film, scrutinising Songlian’s responses to her unseen stepmother’s instruction that she abandons her studies in order to marry. Just as we only see Songlian’s half of the discussion, we are also dropped in halfway through the argument: ‘stop talking, mother’ she says flatly, before capitulating to unheard demands. She goes beyond submission, asking to become the concubine of a rich man, living as far away as possible. The spectator is thus positioned as her tormentor, forced to watch as this acceptance of fate overwhelms her. Fixed in the glare of the unwavering camera, she sheds a tear. This single shot anticipates the entire film in microcosm as Songlian’s perverse surrender is in itself a supreme defiance, a destructive act of passive aggression that signals how she and the women she will meet are to behave towards each other.
After a further percussive outburst, a brief second scene shows Songlian staring at a passing sedan chair. Her scholarly and seemingly modern costume places her at odds with such a spectacle from the past, further emphasised by her arrival at the household. The organisation of space is striking: tight, symmetrical framing, voyeuristic high angles, intimidating low angles, rigid high walls forming a daunting grid. A handmaid washes clothes in a bucket. The transformation out of the modern world is total.
The sedan chair had been meant for Songlian. Still defiant, she refuses to allow her case to be carried but her rebellious modernism crumbles almost immediately when she meets her match in insolence: the housemaid Yan’er riles the new mistress with her sulky attitude and Songlian immediately embraces what little power her new position brings, ordering Yan’er to carry the case.
Each night, the master demonstrates his favoured concubine through a ceremonial lighting of red lanterns and Songlian is quickly seduced by the exotic ambiance, particularly the elaborate foot massage that rewards the preferred mistress and leads the women to target their destructive resentments on each other, desperate for this privilege. The film’s dramatic action hinges on how the seduction of ritual and favour vies with the modernist urge to assert individuality. Songlian’s modernity dooms her: comments on her education are parroted by the household almost as often as she is told, ‘it’s an old family custom’.
Here, as in many of Zhang’s films with Gong Li, the camera uses the cinematic formula of scrutinising the female through the male gaze (Gong is coded, as feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey calls it, with ‘to be looked-at-ness’). By framing all scenes involving the Master so that he is out of shot or kept at such a distance that he is unreadable, Zhang literally gives us little to look at but the women and their gilded prison. It is our gaze which is implicated in the act of patriarchal subjugation.
The camera continues to soak up the exoticism of the film’s mise en scène. Sublime architecture is lit by a rich glow, women are draped in silk cheongsams and ceremony dictates every action. However, the women are overwhelmed by their strictly ordered, walled confines and each in some way plots against the other (the second mistress is described as having the ‘face of a Buddha and the heart of a scorpion’). Both allegiances and grievances between concubines and Yan’er shift as deceptions are mutually unearthed. Ultimately, this flawed environment crumbles, resulting in the third mistress Meishan’s execution and Songlian’s retreat into insanity.
Madness seems inevitable: the sky, when it is glimpsed at all, is consistently restricted to a small corner of the frame, suggesting the banishment of the outside world. A single shot of the sun seen at 92 minutes in feels like a cinematic gasp of air. Thus rationed, the sky seems to offer temporary relief from oppression. The roof is the favourite location for Meishan to sing opera and also the setting where her relationship with Songlian noticeably thaws. This is extended to a thematic contrast between high-angle shots (oppression) and low-angle shots (escape). Significantly, Zhang alters the scene of execution from the source novel’s well to the small structure high up in the complex, signifying that the roof as a source of freedom is a chimera.
This illusion is systematically stripped away. Songlian’s initial opposition is undermined as she herself insists on abusive tradition and ritual being followed, resulting in Yan’er’s death. Another roof sequence sees the focus of spectatorship briefly turned onto the Master’s son, whose presence suggests to both Songlian and the audience an opportunity for romantic escape. Their second meeting, when Songlian is drunk, quickly reveals this as false as he offers her a present that she rejects with the claim that he wasn’t really going to give it to her. Finally, the lanterns themselves, having become symbolic of insubstantial gain, are only permanently lit for Songlian as the backdrop to her insanity.