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大紅燈籠高高掛 (1991)
Raise the Red Lantern

Reviewed by: ewaffle
Date: 10/17/2012
Summary: All Gong Li all the time

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 publically 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.

Reviewed by: dandan
Date: 02/09/2007
Summary: if you marry a rich man, you will only be his concubine...

china, 1920. songlian's (gong li) father has died, she cannot continue with her studies and chooses to marry a rich man. she arrives at the house of her new husband (ma cheng-mui) and becomes his fourth mistress. first mistress (jin shu-yuan) is now an old woman, quietly accepting her role as the big sister to the other mistresses. second mistress (cao cui-fen) is a little younger and still wants to provide the master with a son. third mistress (he sai-fai) used to be an opera singer, she is only a few years older than songlian, who is about to turn twenty.

songlian is introduced to the household and its customs; each evening, the four mistresses stand outside their individual houses, within the master's vast property, and the housekeeper (zhou qi) announces which house will have its lanterns lit, that night. the house that has its lanterns lit, is the house where the master will spend the night. needless to say, this custom causes tension between the four mistresses, who plot and scheme in order to gain favour and have their lanterns lit.

an extra element of tension is introduced, with songlian's arrival, as yan'er (kong lin), songlian's maid, was under the impression that she would be taken as the master's fourth mistress...

well, what can i say? this is a simply outstanding film. zhang yimou, his muse (gong li) and his cinematographer (zhao fei) are all on top form; although .that's not to say that everyone else isn't. kong lin, cao cui-fen and he sai-fai all put in great performances as songlian's main rivals for the affections of the master; each adopting different approaches to gain favour.

still, gong li shines. her portrayal of songlian is just amazing, as is her ability to produce tears on demand, with seemingly perfect timing. this was her fourth film with zhang yimou, who cast her in each of his first seven films and the two certainly combine in fine fashion.

as for the look of the film, zhou fei, captures every scene gloriously. sure, he has great subjects; each of the mistresses are exceptionally well turned out and they inhabit a household that is a simply stunning building. the courtyards and bedrooms of the house, when illuminated by the red lanterns are just beautiful and zhou makes sure that they are remain so, on the screen.

all in all, it is a simply stunning film, which reminds you of just how good zhang yimou can be. i think i may have to order the dvd of the ballet, which zhang produced of this...