Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gong Li in "Raise the Red Lantern"

The way we felt after seeing “Raise the Red Lantern” for the first time in, I believe, late autumn of 1992, may not have been on the lofty level as Keats cracking Chapman’s Homer but it was still quite a shock. We knew that here was something we hadn’t seen before. For many of us it was the first time we watched a mainland Chinese movie and a lot of the our reactions were to what it was not: there were subtitles that actually made sense and lush set design that wasn’t the same village and bridge from Shaw Brothers’ back lot we had seen in so many Hong Kong films. Most amazing, though, was the language. Where was the familiar plaintive, hectoring Cantonese, perfectly suited for whining and threatening? We expected to hear Cantonese in movies with Chinese actors, not the more stately cadences of Mandarin.

Most of all, though, there was Gong Li. “Ju Duo”, the Academy Award nominated Zhang Yimou movie from the year before that featured her had come and gone from the wastelands of the post-industrial Midwest before we had realized it, so this was the first time we saw Gong Li on a forty foot screen. From her first appearance under the credits as the nineteen year old fourth wife of a rural landowner, with her long pigtails and single suitcase, to the last when she has gone mad due to the wretched toxicity of her “sisters” and her own weakness, she dominates the film.

Song Lian is forced to leave her university studies when her father dies. She becomes the Fourth Mistress in the house of Chen Zuo Qian where she is to service her master sexually and produce a son or two. The red lantern of the title is raised at the door of the mistress who will be honored with the presence of Chen that evening. It is the high point and the only important event of the day—of any day at all. She gets a foot massage before she entertains him and gets to choose the menu for the communal meal the mistresses eat each day. Since they have no ability to think or act on their own these privileges are very important in the lives of the women. They are subject to ritual humiliation every day; each stands in on the front stoop of her house with her maid awaiting the lantern lighter. Three are publicly denigrated, one is granted recognition at the whim of the master of the house. Since they are competing for a worthless prize with no way of affecting the outcome the situation at the Chen household is full of hatred, bitterness and intrigue.

The plot of “Raise the Red Lantern” has a few twists none of which are really surprising although one is shocking in its casual cruelty. Women die and are replaced, the servants continue to serve; the lanterns are still lighted each night. The lingering shot at the end of the movie of the face a newly purchased concubine is extraordinary in showing the fear, dread and disgust that is just beneath the almost placid exterior of the fifth mistress.

Zhang framed, lit and photographed Gong Li in a manner fit for a cinema crown princess. She is often outlined by a window or even a half door with light streaming from above and one side, calling to mind portraits by Flemish master Jan Vermeer. Zhang is a master of light, form, mass and texture—the shots of Gong Li are perfectly composed studies that linger in the mind’s eye.


  1. Nice screen grabs, Ed! I only saw this a few years ago when I was catching up on the Zhang Yimou films I hadn't seen yet. I'd seen the trailer for years, which made it seem like some tasteful chinoiserie fairy tale. Wasn't there some line like " Richard Corliss declares that Gong Li is the most beautiful woman in the world"? Anyway, it didn't prepare me for the film's high-octane melodrama and its operatic climax.

  2. Glad you liked the screenshots--some DVDs are easier than others and this one was pretty much pointing and clicking and then cropping a bit in Photoshop elements.

    Corliss REALLY likes Gong Li and has followed her career (at least when he was at "Time" pretty diligently. Clearly a matter of good taste in a critic/reviewer.

    I thought a bit more about the "Raise the Red Lantern" after I wrote the review and think it could be high on the list of most depressing films (in the "this was such a well made movie that I am about to stick my head the over) I have seen since any attempt to have a life--including a fantasy life--other than that allowed within the walls of the Chen compound--must lead to madness and death. It could be on the same lists as desolate epics as "Garden of the Finzi-Continis", "Winter Light" and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They".