Over his career, director Yimou Zhang has shown concern for the lives faced by rural people throughout Chinese history.  Though it may play like a soap opera on the surface, Raise the Red Lantern is much deeper than that.  It shows the inescapable oppressive roles that women were subjected to in early 20th century China, and the relationship between women and authority.

The Players:

  • Director:  Yimou Zhang
  • Writer:  Su Tong, Ni Zhen
  • Cast:  Li Gong, Saifei He, Cuifen Cao, Shuyuan Jin, Jingwu Ma, Lin Kong


With the death of her father, Songlian (Li Gong) is forced to marry a rich master (Jingwu Ma) with 3 wives.  Previously a university student, Songlian is now simply known as the 4th mistress.  Very quickly, Songlian sees that life within the master’s estate is a constant battle against the other wives, as they must all compete for the master’s attention.  Every day, the master is free to choose which mistress to spend the night with, a decision that makes the chosen mistress a type of queen for the day.  Songlian comes to realize the petty and insignificant nature of life on the estate.  Growing defiant against the rules, there seems to be no choice but to become part of a destructive existence.

Despite the passing of four seasons, director Zhang consistently frames the action throughout the film using the same compositions.  Zhang conveys that the master’s estate is a permanent institution where traditions and rules are constant over time.  For a mistress to be chosen by the master on any given day was a big deal, her home exterior would be lit with lanterns, she’d receive foot massages, select the day’s menu items, and command the most attention and respect from the servants.  Under this system, women seemed to have no choice but to plot against each other.  By the end of the film, a 5th wife is introduced, and the cycle continues.  Each woman is nothing more than a momentary participant of a permanent tradition.

Despite the bleak circumstances, it comes alive because of the performances of each actress.  Saifei He, Cuifen Cao, Shuyuan Jin, and Gong Li play the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th wives respectively.  Each actress projects feelings of jealousy, selfishness and anger., but they are our way into the movie as we never see the face of the master.  Zhang uses the servant characters to push the story forward.  The dynamics within this intimate setting are engaging, as every character seems to reflect how human beings under such circumstances would behave.  With few prospects for social mobility, and relegated to the role of pleasing their master under strict rules and guidelines, their motivations to become devious are clearly established.  The costume design and the interior sets are in harmony with the films other stylistic qualities.  It’s impossible not to notice the contrast of bright colors and muted colors, as when red lanterns shine brightly within a setting covered entirely by snow.  It was the use of technicolor that helped create such vibrant images, as China was still operating the last remaining color dye-transfer printing plant in the world.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

Your description of this film in your reviews, strikes as a calculating endorsement more than a passionate one.  You respect the film, and rightfully.  But while I found it to be technically sound, it lacks the emotional impact that perhaps a great film should have.  As your review reveals, most of what Raise the Red Lantern seems to offer is an invitation to reflect on the types of lives that may have once existed.  You refer to the realization that despite not showing a more seedy, graphic and violent setting, the film’s strength lies in the fact that it demonstrates an ugly side of human behavior within an outwardly civil environment portrayed by lush cinematography.  To quote you directly, “That the movie is lush and beautiful, rather than stark and barren–that its story involves luxury rather than the vile brothels of the time–suggests, I believe, that men are wrong to excuse wrong treatment of women on the grounds of ‘how well they are treated.’”  Today, one master and four wives would seem like a perfect premise for a reality show, with each concubine competing for their husband’s love with over-the-top outlandish behavior.  However, Zhang spares us this extreme approach, and instead shows us that oppression is oppression, no matter how you dress it.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you like Raise the Red Lantern?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  Kind Hearts and Coronets

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Yimou Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern this week, he now has 296 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.