Raise the Red Lantern – Yimou Zhang – 1991

Da hong deng long gao gao gua CoverOriginal title: Da hong deng long gao gao gua
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)
Year: 1991
Director: Yimou Zhang
Duration: 125 min.
Genre: Drama

Raise the Red Lantern

A young woman loses her father. Because she can’t live at home with her step mother she decides to get married. When asked whom she might marry, she says she’ll marry a wealthy man. Not to be his wife, but to be one of his wives, a concubine. She – Songlian – will be the fourth and youngest of his wives. On her first day at the estate, she encounters some of the servants and is introduced to a few of the many traditions of the house. The servants hang red lanterns everywhere and light them. This is to announce that the lord of the estate – her husband – is to spend the evening at her place. All four wives have their own private quarters. Each night the lord decides where he wants to stay, and in turn the servants prepare that quarter by lighting the lanterns.

Mother: “If you marry a rich man, you will only be his concubine.”
Songlian: “Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that the fate of a woman?”

The wife that is chosen receives special treatment. She decides the menu for the next day, receives a foot massage and they get to keep the respect of the servants. The living conditions seem good, the place looks gorgeous and the women are treated well. But every day there is a fierce competition for who gets the lord’s attention. The first three concubines turn out to be nice on the outside, but they all want this special treatment. Jealousy and backstabbing is everywhere, even among the servants. This slowly seems to take its toll on the women, who each have their own ways of dealing with the insanity of the situation.

Raise the Red Lantern

The first three wives are all very different people. An older woman, a woman who wants to bear children and a famous and beautiful ex opera singer. Songlian went to university for six months, but then had to drop out because of her father’s death. It seems to be enough to marry the lord. Perhaps her being so young – only 19 – and pretty was enough of a reason on its own. The husband himself is barely ever shown throughout the film, and usually with his face behind a veil or otherwise obscured. Even when he isn’t around, the entire household and staff seem to abide by the house’s rules and customs.

“In a mad world, only the mad are sane.” – Akira Kurosawa

Being pregnant is another one of those customs. Once a wife is pregnant, the husband will stay with her every night until the child is born. So being pregnant is good, but you better give birth to a boy and not a girl. Another thing to keep in mind is that being unfaithful is punishable by death. So should you lose the lord’s favour for some time, you’d better be good at being alone. Or at least good at keeping your affairs a secret from the snooping of other wives and their servants.

Raise the Red Lantern

It’s a crazy ride to see this film. On one hand you have this beautiful estate with expensive furniture, decorations, all the wealth you could possibly want and servants to do all the work. The concubines are all very beautiful women on the outside, so the eye really only sees beauty. But you hear about the plotting and scheming of each of them, and about what it’s like to be a concubine in 1920-30’s China. Not pretty at all. The film is an exploration into a world everyone knew existed, but nobody wanted to talk about. It even got the film banned in China during the first years after its release. However this didn’t stop Hong Kong from submitting Raise the Red Lantern to the Oscars for best foreign film. It did make the shortlist, but it lost to some Italian film in the end.

“She has the face of Buddha and the heart of a scorpion” – Meishan

There is a strong message of feminism in this film. The women are kept in line by means of money and sex. Being chosen for the night has so many benefits you’d do everything to make him choose you. That includes things like betrayal and deception. The women are basically held as prisoners within the stone walls of the mansion. They are treated by the man as property, rather than real persons. Kind of like which doll or action figure you liked the most as a kid. The rest would be tossed in a corner until you grew tired on the one you were playing with. Also occasionally a new one would be bought.

Still, since we hardly ever see or hear the man it is difficult to judge whether or not he’s a bad person or if he is just living according to the traditions of that time period. Songlian certainly also had some choice in the matter at the start of the film. She chose to marry a wealthy man to become his concubine. Surely she must have known what she was getting herself into after her mother’s warning and six months of studying at the university. Just like the other three women, she is sucked into a life of jealousy and deception. Maybe that is what being a prisoner and a piece of property does to you. Who would be able to keep their pride and sanity?

Raise the Red Lantern

I can’t recommend Raise the Red Lantern enough, but it’s a difficult film to find. When you so find it you will be rewarded. There isn’t a bad scene in this film. Even the scene shown when the credits are rolling keeps you watching. Now when did that happen last?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *