A masterpiece. The historical dramas of Zhang Yimou, a master "Fifth Generation" filmmaker who emerged from the reopened Beijing Film Academy during the liberal climate of the early 1980s, resonate with subtexts of repression, resistance and retribution. Though Zhang's screenplay for RAISE THE RED LANTERN (based on the 1989 novel Wives and Concubines by...read more
A masterpiece. The historical dramas of Zhang Yimou, a master "Fifth Generation" filmmaker who emerged from the reopened Beijing Film Academy during the liberal climate of the early 1980s, resonate with subtexts of repression, resistance and retribution. Though Zhang's screenplay for RAISE THE RED LANTERN (based on the 1989 novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong) got a stamp of approval from the Chinese censors, the finished production was banned at home while playing to great praise abroad.
Set in a wealthy 1920s Chinese household, the tale has the timeless quality of a fable, as a lovely nineteen-year-old named Songlian (Gong Li), forced to set aside her academic ambitions, resignedly sells herself to a rich man who already has three wives. "Let me be a concubine," she declares. "Isn't that a woman's fate?" Songlian arrives at the ancient, sprawling palace of Master Chen (Ma Jingwu), where she is welcomed as "Fourth Sister" in the aristocrat's harem. But beneath the polite surface boils a cauldron of intrigue and hatred, as rival wives scheme to win the Master's favor from day to day. As the freshest arrival, Songlian gets the most of Chen's sexual attentions, until he's dragged away by the complaints of wife number three, Meishan (He Caifei), a onetime opera star who now craves the spotlight at home. Songlian is comforted by Second Sister, Zhuoyun (Cao Cuifeng), a kind-looking matron who is later accurately described by Meishan as having the face of the Buddah and the heart of a scorpion.
Almost all of this superbly rendered tragedy takes place within the confines of the Master's vast estate, and Zhang Yimou uses a mostly stationary camera to frame the characters within careful compositions of doorways, portals, canopies and courtyards; the severe, rigid style effectively turns the
sumptuous residence into a metaphorical prison compound. As bleak as the material sounds, there is a certain sardonic humor, mostly from the spirited Meishan and even the Master himself, who's absolutely baffled as to why his spouses seem so discontented.
This sumptuously shot $1 million production was financed by Taiwanese interests through a Hong Kong intermediary, and it was Hong Kong that submitted RAISE THE RED LANTERN as its official candidate for the 1992 Academy Award for best foreign language film, a move disapproved by Beijing. In 2002, Zhang helped adapt a full-evening version of RAISE THE RED LANTERN for the National Ballet of China; the production, which combined classical Chinese and Western dance, theater and musical traditions, featured choreography by Wang Xinpeng and an original score by Chen Qigang.