(I somehow or another forgot that Raise the Red Lantern was not in fact part of either the Cannes or New York festivals, and wrote up a review before coming to that realization. That being said, it did happen to grab a Silver Lion from the Venice Beach festival or some such event, so there’s that. Also, it’s a really good movie and the best of Zhang’s loose early-career trilogy.)
With Ju Dou, Zhang Yimou delivered on the promise of his first film’s visual acumen, pairing his eye for wide compositions and color with a cross-class love triangle, boldly ignoring noir conventions along the way. Raise the Red Lantern is, then, the full maturation of these dual instincts, and the finest picture in the loose trilogy of class struggles in Feudal China.
Sporting a noticeably larger budget than Zhang’s previous works, the film is entirely set within the palatial grounds of a wealthy heir whose conjugal duties are divided between his four mistresses (the eldest his “wife,” though the difference is negligible), the newest and youngest of which is a 19-year old university drop-out (Gong Li, whose beauty is for the first time unobstructed) who has submitted to concubinage to support her family. Rarely outright mentioned but ubiquitously evident, the sex and class structure which dictates the estate’s inhabitants is insidious to nearly everyone not in total power; forming a kind of middle class as privileged by title but limited by gender, the mistresses are made to passively compete against one another for their master’s love, as the woman he chooses to sleep with each night enjoys both material perks and, more importantly, pride. When the third mistress, an older but still prime opera singer, disturbs Gong’s night with the master on their wedding night, an intense inter-class rivalry is born, mediated by the second mistress’ Janusian duplicity. Constantly indignant about her own inferior treatment, Gong projects her vexation on her teenage servant, who herself daydreams of becoming one of the concubines. The wives fight with each other, struggle with their opportunistic servants, and yet all are either unconscious or too disillusioned to question the ultimate oppression of their master. One of Zhang’s shrewdest ideas is to marginalize the master’s character, framing him almost entirely in the background of long shots and suggesting a rather impotent little man fortuitously wielding great power. Master Chen is not truly the enemy either, as all of the unjust rules are chalked up to the “family culture”–this generation of women is merely another link in a long chain of oppression.
The film’s formal aesthetic is markedly more scrupulous than that of Zhang’s previous works, cutting between cold long shots and emotional close-ups, every frame meticulously composed. The majority of the production budget surely went into the set design, each of the mistress’ chambers resembling distinctly opulent palaces. Besides looking gorgeous, this extreme decadence mocks the despondent women, whose submission to the position was perhaps at least partially motivated or supplemented by the dream of material riches. Despite the essentially downward trajectory of Gong’s struggle for superiority and autonomy (paradoxical in this situation), the film ends on a note of acknowledged female solidarity, amplified by a hauntingly slow zoom-in as an opera chorus (the multiple voices exponentially more poignant in their lack of precedence) plays on a phonograph. This is unfortunately only the penultimate scene, as a prologue caps off the inevitably circular narrative structure.