We are introduced to a world which appears ancient, dated, peculiar to our modern Western eyes. A rich and powerful man has many servants and maids catering to his every whim. He also has a number of wives, or maybe concubines would be a better term. He treats these wives much like the other possessions in his home, and forces them into a weird ritual, basically putting on a big show every night after choosing the woman he wants to be with. There are lanterns hung around each wife`s "house", and the servants are asked by the man to light those which hang around the house of the woman he wants to be with on any given day.
A new wife, Wife number four, enters the picture. Played by Gong Li, she seems very reluctant to be a part of this arrangement, but, defeatist, she claims that such servitude is the fate of Chinese women. She enters into a household where tempers and basic human nature boils to a fever pitch.
As the new wife enters the manor, we see a glimpse of the personalities she is up against. The first, old, wife seems to see Li as a potential source of trouble. The second wife seems jovial and accepting of this new person. And the third wife, a former opera singer, seems very snobby, as she won`t even introduce herself properly to this new person, and, on Li`s first night with the husband, even calls him away on the pretense that she is ill. It must seem clear from this paragraph where the trouble lies, and that seems to be with the third wife. But the story is not as simple as that. In fact, the third wife may not be as much of a threat as first appears, and perhaps another person, whom Gong Li would least expect, is much more devious. The story develops with genuine intrigue, as numerous betrayals, revealations, and backstabbings mount, leading up to the shattering ending.
The sub-text of the film is the fact that these women, with their fighting over who will be with the husband tonight, and other general attacks on each other, are only acting this way because they live in a society in which women do not have very many rights. Due to their lack of freedom, they fight for what they could conceivably get, which in this case is the attention of the husband and the privileges which go with being the chosen one for the evening. One of the privileges is being able to pick the food for the evening`s dinner, and in one case the lucky woman gets back at Gong Li`s character by not serving her enough vegetables, which is mostly all Li will eat. Another situation which would normally seem very melodramatic and trashy, but is important, is the fight to have a son by the husband. The first and the third wives both have sons, but the second wife has a girl, and soon develops an obsessive hope to have a son. This would normally be pure soap, but the truth of the matter is that girls are not desirable, and the women do not want to lose favour by giving birth to a useless individual. The second wife`s daughter is even referred to as a cheap little girl. These cultural facts colour the emotions on display.
Visually, the film is close to perfection. The setting itself looks great, and would seem like an awesome place to visit or even live, if not for the systematic oppression which exists there. The direction is subtle and stately, elevating the plot to great heights. This is necessary, because without this, many of the situations in this film would seem gratuitous. And there are a few lurid and shocking events in this film, which, in an exploitation film, for example, would be shown much more vividly. But the story`s message does not lie in shocking details, but in the environment in which the women live in as a whole. The movie is not cheap, but very grand in its storytelling and performances.
Raise the Red Lantern is simply one of the great films. The story
works on two levels - as a classic soap, and as a glimpse into how China
treats its women. Such multiple levels of context only enriches the entertainment
value of the film, and is certainly enough motivation for me at least to
watch even more films from China.
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