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Heralded as a classic in Chinese cinema due to its changemaking realistic story — the first of its kind, departing from Party politics — Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern opens with Gong Li’s reluctant agreement to get married to a rich man and become his concubine. “Isn’t that a woman’s fate?” Songlian asks, before twin spots of light appear in her eyes, a tear followed by another tear as the scene fades to black. Summer has arrived in the architecturally magnificent compound, where she is consigned to spend the rest of her life as one of three wives.
With Hou Hsiao-Hsien as one of its executive producers, the film is an adaptation by Ni Zhen of Su Tong’s novella, Wives and Concubines. It takes place in the 1920s countryside during the post-Qing Warlord Era, not long after the end of the last of the imperial dynasties. During this period, rich men could have over seventy wives through the concubine system. Songlian arrives on the scene without knowledge of the intense rivalries she is to face with the wives, wearing twin butterfly braids, in a white frog-collared shirt, her lovely face stark against the grey compound.
“Why are there so many red lanterns?” she asks her servant curiously. “Because you’re coming,” the girl replies, as the scene of the women washing her clothes cuts to the celebratory lowering of red lanterns by another male servant. With her feet up on a cistern with red- and gold-inlaid cloth, Songlian is illuminated by a chandelier of red lanterns and given the luxury of a foot massage. We see her covered by a red gauzy curtain, below and surrounded by red lanterns, before a red blanket is spread over her body.
The color patterning in the film is in homage to the auspicious quality traditionally assigned to redness, used, for example, in celebratory signs for good fortune that are hung over doors during the Spring Festival. “I have all these lanterns so I can see,” explains the husband. The film is split into seasons demarcated by red calligraphy characters, and soon the culturally significant color appears like a beacon throughout the various scenes, a brightness that enters the gloomy compound and enlivens the courtyards with a suffusion of bold energy.
Lanterns larger than one’s torso open onto a dark hallway of red lanterns. “Lighted lanterns, foot massages, do you like it here?” Songlian is asked innocuously. “After a few days, you won’t want to leave.” The illuminance of the red almost eclipses the eerie and atmospheric feel of the surroundings, a red floral patterned silk robe and a painted face juxtaposed against still scenes with little motion, adding a sinister aura to the temporally frozen space that encloses her.
The environs is more menacing than it is initially shown to be, as Songlian’s maid spits in her clothes and the Third Mistress asks for the husband on her wedding night to spite Songlian. Songlian wanders around the stone rooftops of the enclosure, where she must live for all four seasons — autumn and the discovery of her maid having made a voodoo doll of herself turning into winter, on and on the time passing in stasis.
All the while, the entire movie is awash in orange and red hues and intercut with announcements to light the lanterns day and night as a sign of longevity. Nowhere is the force of tradition more strongly felt, however, than in the opening scene as Songlian leaves her mother behind as well as her past, of which little is known; throughout the next arc, the specter of motherhood hangs over the arranging of appearances between the different women.
The constant scheming of the wives drives Songlian to eventual madness, to no one’s surprise. The movie can be seen as one long commentary on the demarcation between sane and insane acts and a fable against adopting an attitude of resignation or cynicism to begin with — as the protagonist did — when one might have better prospects than one has hoped for.
Reminiscent of the frenzied nuns driven to collective insanity in Ken Russell’s The Devils, Raise the Red Lantern’s innocent-faced protagonist’s plight is one measured against the precarity of the motives of the other players in the film, as their agendas intermingle and collide in their futile attempts to win one unavailable man’s affections, starving themselves of love for each other in the process.
Their machinations against each other cause the temporal advance of the film to slow to a creep, and as the seasons march on in a spatially isolated compound in which time and space feel determined not by natural wonders but by the characters’ comingling, the space of the traditional residence begins to take on a life of its own, becoming, by the movie’s end, the centerpiece of the drama. Its role here is perhaps one belated in its arrival to the viewer’s notice, as much as is Songlian’s eventual realization of her folly and her recompense.