The film is divided into seasonal chapters, each commencing with a high-angled, voyeuristic stare down into the complex. Finally, having trapped Songlian by the gaze from the opening shot, her release only comes when the camera pointedly pulls away backwards through a series of dissolving high-angled shots as we abandon her to solitude and psychosis. Though diminished in the frame and trapped within the confines of the compound, she is back in her scholarly uniform, suggesting the absurdity of forcing a ritualised step backwards from modernity. Her defiance has been the basis of the dramatic action throughout and she has ultimately defied us: we can no longer look at her and have to skulk away.
In Zhang’s earlier Ju Dou (1990), the gaze is overtly erotic. In a key scene, Gong’s character is spied on through a hole as she bathes. She turns to her voyeur, displaying not a seductive image but a battered and dirty body. Rey Chow cites this moment as the character confronting the voyeur, attacking and making us uneasy, ‘what is on display, what is being cited, is not simply the cliché of the female body but, crucially, the signs of violence it bears’ (1995: 167). Raise the Red Lantern removes the erotic and has a more devastating effect: Songlian’s self-destruction is assured from the start as she confronts the effects of unbending authority and we, like her unseen stepmother, are forced to watch how it abuses her. Defiance in the film is desperate self-destruction and challenges the spectator to confront his/her complicity. Similarly, Yan’er’s refusal to apologise kills her as she is made to kneel in the snow until she capitulates. As it is Songlian’s petty display of power over her maid that leads to this situation, the suggestion is that levels of oppression are relative.
As well as sumptuous visuals, the film’s aural design includes the sound of the foot massages administered by rattling hammers, Meishan’s singing, the oldest son’s flute and the alarming sound of the lanterns being extinguished. This all presents an overtly feudalistic Chinese sheen. As a result, while the film’s formal beauty is undeniable, much negative criticism has been pointed at this self-orientalising display. The spectacle of (largely invented) rituals, as well as the film’s Confucian stillness, classical composition, presentation of concubinage and museum-like enactment of historical China all fetishise Chinese ethnography for Western consumption. In his critical study Orientalism, Edward Said defines Western approaches to thinking of the Far East as imposing a set of preconceived archetypes – literally defining the East by its differences from the West (2003). Raise the Red Lantern can thus be accused of Orientalist commodification – literally ‘cashing in’ on its ‘otherness’ to the Occidental spectator. Certainly, the film’s Academy Award nomination raised the profile of Chinese cinema on the international market.
However, while there is optimism in the upbeat ending of Zhang’s earlier Red Sorghum (1987), post Tiananmen Square, the outcome of Zhang’s ‘Red’ films becomes noticeably more jaded. Far from presenting a mere spectacle of Chinese identity for commercial reasons, Raise the Red Lantern as a critique of inflexible rules that crush the individual (particularly the individual female) can be seen as a guarded criticism of oppressive Maoism.
In Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy (2002), screenwriter Ni Zhen argues that Zhang’s films offer his Chinese audience, ‘cinematic representations of a “temporalised” China … they are profound diachronic descriptions and artistic expressions of the circumstances of individual Chinese people’ (2003: 198). Zhang presents the oppressive nature of power and its destructive effects on people. Here, as in most of his work, authority inevitably ‘triumphs’ but questions are raised as to where audience sympathies lie.
The Fifth Generation’s earlier work of the late eighties often situated the Confucian past as an arena for intellectual conflict. Unable to criticise openly a communist present, semi-mythologised pre-Maoist times become the environment for a dialogue about China’s relationship with its past, leading to self-orientalising spectacle as a position for anti-authoritarian defiance. Criticising a Confucian other is far safer than an open assault on the Mainland government. In interviews, Zhang is understandably guarded when questioned on this.
Rey Chow also considers how the film is scrutinised by, ‘the double gaze of the Chinese security state and the world’s, especially the West’s orientalism’ (1995: 170). Zhang’s self-orientalising approach challenges the voyeuristic spectator, much as Songlian and Yan’er use their powerlessness as a weapon of defiance. As tensions seethe beneath a veneer of respectability, we side with the subjugated. The feudal garlands scarcely disguise a criticism of totalitarian attitude and by peeling back the layers of tradition and exoticism, an ugly interior is revealed. Unsurprisingly, for a time it was banned in Mainland China.
Ultimately, Zhang Yimou’s clearest criticism of oppression comes more from the film’s form than content: it rejects the socialist realism of his predecessors. The off-screen portrayal of the master entirely prevents audience identification; he is a force of authoritarianism rendered powerful and dehumanised. Songlian’s request to turn off the lights as he prepares to take her (presumed) virginity is rebuffed with the words, ‘I like it bright and formal’. Songlian is subjected to the gaze throughout and, by extension, the western gaze. It is thus her struggle that drives the narrative – she is active and opposes our scrutiny, defiant in her tragedy.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: China, Hong Kong, Taiwan. Production Company: ERA International/Salon Productions/ China Film. Director: Zhang Yimou. Screenwriter: Zhen Ni (based on Wives and Concubines by Su Tong). Cinematographer: Zhao Fei. Music: Zhao Jiping. Cast: Gong Li (Songlian), He Caifei (Meishan), Cao Cuifen (Zhuoyun), Lin Kong (Yan’er).]
Rey Chow, Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography & Contemporary Chinese Cinema, New York, Columbia University Press, 1995.
Frances Gateward (ed.), Zhang Yimou Interviews, Jackson, University of Mississippi Press, 2001.
Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, London, Penguin Classics, 2003. Ni Zhen, (author) and Chris Berry (trans.), Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China’s Fifth Generation, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2002.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.