Raise the Red Lantern (Da hong deng long gao gao gua, 1991)
China, Hong Kong, Taiwan
125 min, color, Mandarin (English subtitles)
There are many communalities between this film and director Zhang Yimou's previous feature, "Ju Dou." The story is again set during the 1920s, in a Chine bound by social custom, tradition, and male dominance (yes, the REAL thing, not the imaginary male chauvinism that American women bitch about). This film also has Gong Li in the main role, it is also a scathing indictment of the inhumane cruelty of the rigid hierarchy of Chinese society and family. Finally, it is just as depressing, pessimistic, and lyrical as the other film.
This time, the story is about a young college student, Songlian (Gong Li), whose father dies and leaves her unable to finance her studies. She accepts to marry a wealthy middle-aged business man and becomes his fourth wife. She is assigned a maid, Yan'er, with delusions of grandeur (wants to become a mistress herself, and has affairs with the husband). From the very beginning, it becomes clear that Songlian has entered a societal microcosm with its own rules, rewards, and punishments.
The husband is referred to as "master" by everyone, even his wives. We never really see his face, he is more of an embodiment of patriarchy, insensitive, egotistical, and revolting. The first wive is old, has given her husband a male heir, and is no longer of sexual interest to him. The second wife, who Songlian mistakes for being friendly, is power hungry and rather unhappy because she has only given her master a useless daughter. The third wife is a coquettish ex-opera singer, who is the most straightforward and likeable of the three.
The household is divided, and each wive lives in her own quarters. Their entire existence seems to revolve around pleasing the husband and providing him with a male heir. The wives compete with each other for his attention because being in his good graces (i.e. he picks her for the night) automatically raises the statute of the wife among the other wives and servants. The master is particularly degrading to them with the way he chooses where to spend the night. All four wives line up in the courtyard and then the servants put a red lantern in front of the chosen one.
Gong Li's performance is very subdued. At first she does not know how to function in that competitive environment, she is drawn to the one wife that shows sympathy for her. It turns out, however, this was a most dangerous mistake. Nothing in this household is what it seems when it comes to inter-wife politics. Songlian fakes pregnancy to get into the good graces of the master, is found out, disgraced, and punished. She seems to fall in love with the first wife's son, but he rebuffs her, and in any case she is mostly lonely and unhappy. Her maid constantly plots against her and betrays her at every possible occasion. When Songlian gets drunk on her birthday, she inadvertently reveals the illicit affair of the third wife, which leads to that wife's execution. Songlian goes mad, and is reduced to the status of pariah in the household. The master takes a fifth wife.
Although somewhat long and sluggish, this movie delivers the story is a quiet, dignified, and very touching way. The tragedy of humiliation, dishonor, and ultimate mental ruin of the young woman is both a statement about the patriarchal family, but, more importantly, an allegory about the rigid structure of Chinese society, which degrades and dehumanizes people (especially women). This film will agitate and aggravate Western viewers, the quiet desperation of the young wife is perhaps depressing, just as the infidelity of the singer is understandable. Although we can witness the events unfold, I doubt that we can truly comprehend the horror of such an existence. No wonder the film was banned in China as politically incorrect. "Don't ask, don't tell."
21 March, 2001. BLS