Raise the Red Lantern

World Premiere | Out Of Competition | Restored Classics | Tribute to ZHANG Yimou


Followed by: Masterclass - online


Guest star:
ZHANG Yimou, director
CHIU Fu-sheng, producer


The latter half of the one-two punch (following 1989’s Ju Dou) that made Zhang Yimou the most revered Chinese filmmaker in the world, Raise the Red Lantern (1991) has not diminished in power over 30 years after initial release. Set in 1920s China and adapting the novella Wives and Concubines by Su Tong, Raise the Red Lantern is a compelling work based on its screenplay alone. Under Zhang Yimou’s direction it becomes something much more: a masterpiece demonstrating the filmmaker’s complete control of film language.

Raise the Red Lantern opens with 19-year-old Songlian (Gong Li) staring morosely into the camera as she consents to marry a rich man. “Let me be a concubine,” she says. “Isn’t that a woman’s fate?” Told in a single remarkable shot, the scene features one implacable facial expression from Gong Li that’s interrupted only by dialogue and finally two silent teardrops. Already we know so much about this defiant yet compromised character through one shot, as she contradicts her own personal convictions by agreeing to be caged.

Traveling to the family compound of her new husband Master Chen (Ma Jingwu), she arrives on foot, opting not to be taken by sedan. She’s self-reliant and self-possessed, and yet her pride is not reserved only for punching up at oppressors. She takes offense at her standoffish personal maid Yan’er (Kong Lin), and immediately condescends to her. She also sizes up Master Chen’s three other wives and quickly judges that former opera singer Meishan (He Saifei) is her main antagonist. She turns out to be wrong, but that’s just one portion of the unfolding household drama.

Initially, Songlian seems unimpressed by the Chen household’s routine pageantry, wherein glowing red lanterns are hung every evening outside the room of the concubine selected to receive Master Chen. The selected concubine also gets extra pampering like foot massages and control over meal selection. Songlian views these luxuries with disdain, but once she experiences them – and sees that Master Chen selecting another concubine over her will earn the derision of the household – she becomes a major power player, vying with the other wives to see who gets the nightly red lanterns and foot massages.

Zhang Yimou’s mise-en-scene immaculately communicates this duplicitous political situation. The director uses silences, symmetrical compositions and spartan settings to show the cold indifference of the Chen household. At the same time, the household’s bleakness is contrasted with the glow of the red lanterns, which seem alluring in their status and warmth. Living in this soulless home, surrounded by two-faced women launching barbed double entendres – who wouldn’t want to feel more powerful, even just for one evening? Fueling the symbolism is the fact that Master Chen is only shown in long shots or with his face obscured. In the end, we needn’t know him personally to understand his power. Nominally a dark drama, Raise the Red Lantern is also a subtle comedy of errors, portraying social customs and the conniving characters navigating them as a means of satirizing or criticizing society. Songlian is a victim of society but she becomes a perpetrator, as she uses society’s rules and customs selfishly, leading to the film’s greatest tragedies. There is an obvious commentary here on 1920s China, but it can be applied to any patriarchy, and indeed any society where power exists and pits people against each other to maintain itself. Raise the Red Lantern is a masterpiece because it understands humanity thoroughly and indicts it so artfully, incisively and powerfully. It remains astonishing that Zhang Yimou could produce such a complete and universally relevant work with only his third theatrical feature.

Ross Chen
Film director: ZHANG Yimou
Year: 1991
Running time: 125'
Country: China
02/05 - 9:30 AM
Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da Udine
02-05-2024 9:30 02-05-2024 11:35Europe/Rome Raise the Red Lantern Far East Film Festival Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da UdineCEC Udine cec@cecudine.org