When we speak of Zhang Yimou, a leading light of China’s so-called Fifth Generation of filmmakers, many people immediately conjure up sumptuous imagery from the director’s more commercially successful titles like Red Sorghum (1987), Hero (2002) and House of the Flying Daggers (2004). For me, however, the single work that best exemplifies Zhang’s genius for disseminating biting social criticism through ravishing yet seemingly harmless visuals, is his 1991 production Raise the Red Lantern.
This film, starring Zhang’s long-time partner, muse and one-time lover Gong Li, is a sinister tale about how the young concubine of a wealthy old man is slowly driven mad after finding herself trapped in a no-win power struggle among his many plotting wives.
Song Lian, a college student in China’s Republic days of 1920’s, is forced to marry Master Chen as his fourth and youngest wife and live in his huge mansion in a northern province of China. She soon learns of the many rules in this elaborate compound filled with private chambers. The most significant involves the wives waiting each evening to see which has a set of red lantern raised in their individual courtyard indicating that she will be “honored” with a visit from the master that night. The honor carries prestige and numerous household benefits so vying for his attention is the sole purpose of the kept women, Song Lian soon finds out.
In the beginning, Song Lian is the master’s favorite. But her rebellious streak and pride as a better-educated woman soon leave her on the low end of the hierarchical ladder. Her bid for a comeback hits hard against the trickeries of other wives, particularly the conniving and evil second wife, with disastrous results.
Like several of Zhang’s best films, Raise the Red Lantern is based on an original work of fiction, Su Tong’s 1990 novella Wives and Concubines. But what makes this film so much more eloquent than his other films is the director’s extensive use of color schemes, framing and camera angles to deliver a bigger point about the power structure in patriarchal Chinese society. It’s a message that violence breeds violence as we see the weak and powerless exploited by those on top, who then turn around and pound at those who’re even more venerable than they are.
Particularly striking is the film’s use of red, which Zhang frequently claims is his favorite. While red is used to symbolize passion and revolutionary spirit in Red Sorghum, it takes on a much more sinister meaning in Raise the Red Lantern. The lighting of the red lanterns suggests power and status for the wives because whoever wins the master’s favor receives an elaborate foot massage (to better serve the master that evening) and the right to decide the menu for the entire household the following day.
Red also evokes death when things go horribly wrong. Take the case of Yan’er, Song Lian’s rebellious maid who’s secretly vying for the same attention of the old master. When Song Lian, tiring of the competition around her, discovers that Yan’er has hidden several lit lanterns in her servant’s quarter in a private fantasy of someday becoming an official concubine, she flies into a rage and forces the servant to apologize. When Yan’er refuses, Song Lian makes a public show of burning Yan’er’s lanterns and makes her kneel overnight in the snow. Yan’er’s lifeless corpse is discovered the following morning beside the charred remains of her once red lanterns. Zhang seems to be saying that the stakes are huge in the game of power, particularly for those who rebel. Only those who submit to authority survive.
Song Lian’s story in Su Tong’s original work is set in southern China but Zhang, a northerner who once claimed he couldn’t relate to the southern climate, sets the film in the famed Qiao Family Compound, a Shanxi landmark. In Wives and Concubines, Su Tong describes a well in a central courtyard as both a social gathering place for women and a warning against missteps given that past wives were forced to end their lives there after transgressions. Zhang makes use of a watchtower (that doubles as a hanging tower of women) atop a lofty building in the Qiao compound to get across the same point mentioned in the novel.
But the changed setting to the multiple-layered Qiao Family Compound also provides ample opportunity for Zhang to experiment with framing and camera angles to make other important points that wouldn’t have been possible to pull off on a flat ground. To show us how Song Lian’s fate as a prisoner and slave to the master’s whims is sealed as soon as she enters the gate, Zhang repeatedly cuts to a high-angle shot of a quadrangle – the living quarters assigned to Song Lian. The recurring shot taken in different seasons, and frequently at night against a dark blue sky, highlights how ever tighter the protagonist is boxed in by her four walls until she’s mentally strangled. In the end, madness is the only escape from her destiny.
Some critics argue that Zhang’s penchant for the exotic and China’s folkloric past makes his films irrelevant because he’s neglecting the more sober present. On the surface, Raise the Red Lantern appears to be a critique of China’s patriarchal society and gender politics. But if you consider the film’s timing just shortly after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and Zhang’s background as a sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution, it’s evident there’s a larger point at work here. The film’s somber mood, a sharp departure from Red Sorghum’s celebratory tone, works at least as well to remind us of the tragic late 1980s events in Beijing as its commentary on feudalism.
Further evidence of a deliberate political critique is seen in Zhang’s portrayal of Master Chen. Despite repeated appearances, his face is never fully revealed. He’s either seen from a distance, or we hear him speak from behind curtains. Yet throughout the story, his presence is felt in every corner. This off-screen treatment, along with repeated references to rules and traditions, also suggests that rigid, iron-fisted Chinese governance may link to and have its roots in the feudalistic past.
To dismiss Zhang’s movies because of their disarmingly stunning visuals and exotic character is to underestimate their power of suggestion and the weight of their political messages. Zhang doesn’t spell everything out, and it requires a discerning eye to see the political meanings crafted on screen.
‘Riding the Waves’ — A DC Chinese Film Festival Retrospective of the New Wave Chinese Cinema of the 80’s and 90’s runs from September 21-24.