Raise the Red Lantern

(Zhang Yimou, China/Taiwan/Hong Kong, 1991)


Raise the Red Lantern has one of the most striking beginnings in recent screen history.

Songlian (Gong Li) is first seen in a sudden close up, remaining perfectly rigid as she argues with her off-screen mother about having to leave home and become a concubine. As she finally capitulates, tears streak her face. The chilling economy of this shot powerfully encapsulates the mood and manner of the entire film.

Director Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, 1990) is one of the premier artists of world cinema in the '90s. Portraying the rigid, claustrophobic world of a shadowy patriarch and his four mistresses in 1920s China, Zhang conveys everything through ritualistic repetitions: the beating of a gong, the lighting of a lantern, the way someone enters or leaves a room. For it is through such small, inexorable gestures that the master maintains his immaculate system of tyranny.

Simultaneously, the film describes another network of power relations: the vicious games of deceit and one-upmanship played among the women in their desperate attempt to gain some meagre privilege. Sadism and masochism, pain and pleasure are intertwined in these perverse games.

Unfolding tragic events with a cool precision, Raise the Red Lantern is a brilliant political fable, and a screen melodrama of the highest order.

MORE Zhang: Not One Less, Red Sorghum

© Adrian Martin August 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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