By Edward Copeland
That face. That gorgeous image of Gong Li not only exposed to me to her for the first time but to my first viewing of a Zhang Yimou film as well. Wait! I confess — factually speaking, clips of Raise the Red Lantern and its star crossed my eyesight before I saw the movie, but I prefer to remember it the other way and I hadn't seen Red Sorghum or Ju Dou yet. Besides, the scenes shown on Siskel & Ebert couldn't really do justice to that remarkable face or film, particularly that opening scene that consisted only of a young Chinese girl named Songlian (Gong) speaking to her offscreen mother (voice of Ding Weimin).
SONGLIAN: Mother, stop. You’ve been talking for three days. I’ve thought it over. Alright, I’ll get married
MOTHER'S VOICE: Good. What sort of man is he?
SONGLIAN: What sort of man? Is it up to me? You always speak of money. Why not marry a rich man?
MOTHER'S VOICE: Rich man? 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?
Songlian talks to her mother in a voice that's strong and defiant and that makes the silent streams of tears that fall down her cheeks even more powerful, just as the film that follows that scene will be.
When Gong Li and Zhang Yimou collaborated (onscreen and off), it turned out to be one of the most fruitful actress/director relationships in cinema history, even though it lasted a mere six features, the last of which, 1995's Shanghai Triad, ended the teaming on a mixed note (Gong and Zhang reunited for 2006's Curse of the Golden Flower, but it didn't come close to matching their work in the '90s). Raise the Red Lantern marks my second favorite of the Gong/Zhang films (topped only by 1994's To Live). Lantern immediately followed Ju Dou and, like that film, received an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. However, one major difference separated the two films in terms of Oscar submission. China submitted Ju Duo as its official entry when it received its nomination in 1990, the first Chinese film ever nominated. Ju Dou did face some controversy and the communist government banned it for a few years, though eventually they lifted the ban. Lantern proved even more provocative to the Chinese officials, who viewed the film as a veiled allegory for the contemporary Chinese government and similarly banned it (and later lifted it) so it was submitted to the Academy Awards by Hong Kong, which hadn't been handed over to the China yet.
Like Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern takes place in 1920s China during what was known as the country's warlord era, not that anything on the screen specifically tells you the date of the film, aside for a phonograph player that narrows the time period down. Songlian does marry a rich man as she told her mother she would. Soon after she arrives at the ancient fortress that the Chen family has held for generations, she'll learn how right her mother was when telling her that she'd be a concubine since she would become the fourth wife (or Fourth Mistress, as she's formally referred) to Master Chen (Ma Jingwu). Screenwriter Zhen Ni adapted Lantern from the 1990 novel Wives and Concubines by Tong Su. After the brief prologue where Songlian speaks directly to the camera, Zhang divides the film by seasons, beginning with SUMMER when Songlian shows up at the massive, Chen castle grounds dressed like a schoolgirl, wearing long pigtails and carrying a single suitcase. Her unexpected appearance panics the old, longtime servant Chen Baishun (Zhou Qi) who asks her why she didn't take the bridal sedan they sent for her. Songlian tells him that she insisted on walking and when he reaches to take her suitcase, she refuses. She's determined to be self-sufficient. Baishun doesn't argue and begins to lead Songlian toward her new residence. After her long walk, Songlian feels slightly grimy so before she enters the interior of her home, she spots a servant woman (Lin Kong), who must be around her age, sitting on the ground of the stone courtyard, washing clothes by hand. Songlian asks if she might borrow a bit of the clean water from her basin to rinse her arms and hands and the servant, whose name is Yan'er, reluctantly acquiesces but doesn't hide her bitterness toward this new arrival — through glares, tone and words. Realizing quickly what the pecking order in the Chen household will be, Songlian drops any pretense of politeness and orders Yan'er to bring her suitcase into the house. When I rewatched Raise the Red Lantern, for the first time in several years, while many of its most potent and devastating details had remained seared in my memory, I'd forgotten how many surprises the film springs on you via its talented cast, Zhang's directing choices and Zhen's script. I don't mean twists in the conventional sense that we think of when it comes to movies such as Angel Heart, which I discussed just last week, or Fight Club but in characters and situations where things don't turn out to be quite the way they appear at first glance.
Songlian entered this multiple marriage with a decidedly cynical attitude, but the attention a new wife gets shown on her first day overwhelms the 19-year-old. Baishun shows her into her home, which isn't particularly spacious but comes adorned with nice looking furnishings. What takes Songlian's breath away is when the battalion of servants begins appearing to equip residence, both inside and outside. Men hurry into place pushing rolling racks of bulbous red lanterns that they light and hang on hooks leading to her door. One man comes into the house, lowers a ring holding several of the lanterns above her bed, methodically lights each one and then raises them back toward the ceiling again. This section of the film brings the moment, as in Ju Dou when those dye machines began working overtime, that absolutely gorgeous cinematography consumes the screen. Unlike Ju Dou, which splashed wide array of vivid color across its canvas using the long abandoned Technicolor process, Red Lantern's cinematographer Zhao Fei utilizes the color in the film's title as his hue of choice (and won awards from both the Los Angeles and National Society of Film Critics groups for his work. The Inaccurate Movie Database credits Zhao correctly on the movie's awards page, but claims he and Yang Lun, one of the two d.p.'s on Ju Dou, teamed up on Lantern's cinematography on the film's main page. Zhao removes other virtual crayons besides red from his box to create vibrant and striking images for such as a startling icy blue shade at one point. He even manages to make winter's grays and whites sparkle somehow amidst the dullness of the grayer ancient surroundings. While the pampering flatters Songlian, who likes to consider herself smarter and worldlier than many around her, the audience shouldn't forget her age either.
We eventually learn that Songlian attended a university but her father's death forced her to drop out since her family no longer could afford the tuition. That's what led her mother to pressure her into marriage but it's also why she warned her daughter against the type of marriage she enters. That first day though seems pretty good to Songlian — the new wife gets to decide the dinner menu and receives a foot massage, which brings another group of servants (all female) to her residence to prepare her for that ritual. What Songlian doesn't realize is that every day isn't like this and the Master picks which of his wives receives the "honor" of having him sleep with her that night along with the other perks (foot massage, dinner menu, etc.) This pits the wives against one another on a daily basis, competing and scheming daily to be the chosen one. If this were played for laughs, they'd call it "Desperate Concubines." Raise the Red Lantern tells its story on so many levels simultaneously (if one happens to be veiled criticism of the Chinese government, so be it; the movie did come out just a little more than two years after Tiananmen Square), but at its core, the lanterns being lit shine upon the tragic history not only of women in China, but women everywhere — a battle being waged frighteningly on state and national levels in the U.S. today over issues thought settled long ago. (And Songlian tried to pursue a higher education — what a snob!) The wives learn to covet the foot massages that, while not as awful as the practice of foot binding, don't look particularly relaxing. One of the oldest servants, Aunt Cao (Cao Zhengyin), explains to Songlian that "a woman's feet are very important" so she can serve her master well. That's why the wives get the "privilege" of this ritual where servants as the servants stretch out the wife's legs, resting the feet on a stool and wrapping a piece of linen around them. Then Aunt Cao takes two hard looking implements that make sounds like rattles and beat them repeatedly against the souls of the wife's feet. In an issue of Senses of Cinema by David Neo on the film called "The 'Confusion Ethics' of Raise the Red Lantern," Neo writes extensively about the history of fetishism of women's feet by men in China, saying, "It was a Chinese myth that the smaller a woman’s feet, the smaller her vagina — therefore, the better for the man."
Songlian gets an idea of the games wives play that first night, what should be her "honeymoon." The young woman expresses nerves as it is, hiding her nakedness beneath the covers and asking her husband if they can turn out the lights, but he likes the lanterns lit, so he can see her. It doesn't matter much because before they can consummate their union, a servant knocks on the door to interrupt. He apologizes but tells the Master the Third Mistress (He Caifei) has fallen ill and is asking for him. At first, the Master orders him to call for a doctor and to tell her he'll see her in the morning, but the servant says she's insistent. The annoyed Master says he's sorry to Songlian, but if he doesn't go, she'll keep this up all night. so he leaves Songlian alone. (This isn't fun for the servants either who have to extinguish the lanterns and Songlian's home and light them at the home of Meishan, the Third Mistress. Someone, presumably Zhang, made a very interesting decision concerning Master Chen in the film: The moviegoer never gets a clear view of his face. The first time I saw Raise the Red Lantern, I thought perhaps Zhang was withholding the moment the audience sees what he looks like for a dramatic purpose much as Spielberg didn't let you see the shark right away in Jaws. That doesn't turn out to be the case though. While Master Chen certainly can be viewed as a villain, it's more like evil spreads out from him and his family's "rules" while in most cases you don't see him committing the acts himself. The Master really serves as a pawn in this game where the women are the victims as well as the villains. Then as the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover.
When I knew at the end of last year that the anniversary of the U.S. release of Raise the Red Lantern occurred this year, the prospect of writing about this great film excited me. I wanted to detail the surprises and turns the film takes and how what could have been a staid period tale of oppression turns into a moving, riveting and entertaining motion picture all at the same time, but when I watched it again, a protective feeling awoke in me. Sure, I could utilize the silly SPOILER ALERT, but it isn't that important to tell you in specifics who does what to whom. If you haven't seen the film, you must experience these events for yourself to truly appreciate Zhang's masterful direction, Zhen's great screenplay and, most especially, the wondrous ensemble of actresses. I love Gong but, unlike most of her films, she's not the only actress with chops. All the characters that matter are women and two of the other actresses give performances as downright superb as Gong's. He as Third Mistress Meishan and Cao Cuifen as Zhuoyun, the second mistress also do brilliant work. Giving a fine turn in a smaller role is Lin as Yan'er, the spiteful servant who becomes Songlian’s personal maid and spits in her laundry. We eventually learn her attitude comes from her feeling that she should have been the Fourth Mistress. Playing the First Wife, Yuru, is Jin Shuyuan, an older woman who keeps quiet most of the time since Master Chen shows little interest in her anymore. (Given her age, that's one reason I though they kept his face hidden — to shock us with how old he looks.)
He Caifei and Cao Cuifen stand out in what really end up being the film's most difficult roles since the movie places the audience in the same position as Songlian in that we don't know how to read them. He's Third Mistress Meishan definitely comes on the scene as the troublemaker, interrupting Songlian's first night and when the same tactic fails the second night, she uses her skills as a former opera singer to sing all night on the roof of the castle and keep everyone awake. Cao's Second Mistress Zhuoyun doesn't seem duplicitous at all at first, going out of her way to be friendly to Songlian and give her gifts. She even acts as if she's happy for her when she gets picked as the mistress for the night. It's only when Songlian uncovers secrets that Yan'er hides in her quarters that she realizes that the maid works as a spy for Zhuoyun. The situation that persists in the Chen household infects everyone in the end and soon Songlian plays the same sort of games and schemes in the same ways to try to monopolize the master's attention. Eventually this chain of events leads to horrifying results for most of the people who live there. After someone dies, Songlian actually says that she is lucky to be dead because that is a better fate than being alive in the Chen household. A lot of lines prove to be very telling, but I'm going to give them to you as blind quotes to preserve the film's surprises. During a dinner of the wives, one complains about another and vows how different things will be when she's in charge prompting another to say, "When you're in charge, the Chen household will perish." One mistress on another: "She has the face of Buddha and the heart of a scorpion. She's the truly wicked one. I'm no match for her." Even though Master Chen has a grown son Feipu (Xiao Chu) by his first wife and has another by Meishan, Zhuoyun regrets only giving him a daughter and Songlian gets warned, "If you don't give him a son, you're in for hard times." Both actresses give simply superb performances, but I haven't heard much of either since. Not that you can trust the Inaccurate Movie Database, but it lists very few titles for He Caifei (I'm going with the spelling of her name I find everywhere else, that's how little I trust IMDb these days) except for some Chinese TV series, though it says her last feature was Ang Lee's Lust, Caution. Cao Cuifen's IMDb filmography ends up even sparser, showing a single TV series and four feature films in her entire career. Then again, who know what can happen to artists in China?
As for Gong Li, Raise the Red Lantern might have been one of her earliest performances, but it showed what a gifted actress she was even then in her mid-20s. She has continued to work steadily in China as well as some American productions such as Memoirs of a Geisha and Michael Mann's film version of Miami Vice. In Red Lantern, what she has to accomplish and does truly amazes. Every emotion you can think of, Songlian expresses — and she gets a drunk scene and gets to go mad as well. It's too bad the performance wasn't eligible for an Oscar nomination. When you think of the Academy's tendency to bestow best actress on twentysomething actresses constantly, few of whom approach what Gong did.
Zhang Yimou provides a lot of great camera moves in the movie both in terms of composition and motion. He has one sequence that pulls back from a scene (I don't want to say of what) to give you the bigger picture that's quite remarkable. As I said earlier, the wondrous cinematography combined with the production design just produces a stunningly beautiful film, even if it's a heartbreaking one in the end when you see a Fifth Mistress arrive who looks like the youngest yet. Zhang often ran into trouble in China, but he has stuck it out there. Part of me always has wished that he made the leap as other directors did when fleeing totalitarian states such as Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. Then again, who's to say that Hollywood wouldn't have ruined him as they did Jean Renoir who had to return to Europe to make good films again? China has done their own damage. I miss the Zhang Yimou who made the personal, intriguing films before he got caught up in the Hero-House of Flying Daggers-Curse of the Golden Flower-type of filmmaking. Riding Alone for a Thousand Miles certainly went in the right direction and there are a frustrating number of his works that just never make it here at all. The Flowers of War makes me curious, but after the disaster of A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, I don't know what to expect from him. Whatever he does, we'll always have that great period of work that lasted through about The Road Home in 2000. More importantly, we'll always have Raise the Red Lantern.