It quite saddens me to say that out of recent note I’ve fallen out of love with the films of Zhang Yimou primarily because knowing what he was capable of when he was at the top of his game yet lately it seems as if he’s sunken down to levels of melodrama that just don’t very much ring towards my sensibilities. Yet in the 1990’s is where I feel he has accomplished his finest efforts and if one of those films were to stand apart from all the rest, in my eyes, it’s none other than Raise the Red Lantern. Prior to having watched Raise the Red Lantern I was admittedly unfamiliar with the films of Zhang Yimou, as it was my first from him – and it has left such a great impact on that one viewing which still has lasted upon all these years I’ve went without having seen it.
Zhang Yimou’s film is a feminist masterpiece depicting the struggle of Chinese women living within a patriarchal system, and on their end, they are entrapped within a prison. What’s most fascinating about a film like Raise the Red Lantern is the political critiquing that takes place while it lasts and thus we’re left with a commentary on the treatment of women within society, given how the world at one point often saw males as the dominant and then were sexist towards females. It became clear to me from there that Raise the Red Lantern was a most masterful achievement at least when it came to understanding how like males, the females are also subject to the emotional troubles men even encounter themselves, which often they are unwilling to show. It was clear from there to me Raise the Red Lantern was truly a wonderful film.
While the political criticisms are one thing that make Raise the Red Lantern as effective as it stands, what’s also outstanding is Zhang Yimou’s movement through the set pieces, and overall the visual look of the film. Whether you look at the set designs or the cinematography, there’s always something left within Raise the Red Lantern that without a doubt is sure to leave an impression within the visual field. Every frame that we’re left with in here shouts out the visual beauty and there’s always an elegance to be found with how Zhang is using the imagery which he is presenting as a means of reflecting the emotions of his characters, but something about the use of red is where I’m most intrigued.
The use of red would go to remind me of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Cries and Whispers, a film that utilizes the colour red as a means of depicting the interior of the human soul, as red is the colour of blood. When it came to Zhang Yimou’s using of red within Raise the Red Lantern, what makes the colouring so interesting is how the image of the red lantern is not only within the tradition of what goes on within the castle, but as the red lanterns raise high, they expose the vertical heights of the walls themselves and thus there’s a feeling of claustrophobia that can be felt within how suddenly, the red lanterns feel so much larger compared to our souls because of how high up they are standing, much like the master heralding the throne.
Gong Li plays the 19-year-old Songlian, who is forced to marry a powerful lord as a means of becoming one of the most powerful figures around the castle. Watching Gong Li’s emotional struggle within Raise the Red Lantern is a part of why the experience of watching such a film is made all the more magical, especially when you know that she must suffer like the other females around her in order to get the attention of her master. Zhang Yimou does not depict Songlian as a complete angel for she is also a resentful figure who can hold grudges easily, but the humanity that is present within her character is where the emotional connection between the character and the viewer soon forms, but just viewing from one perspective becomes all the more useful especially when it also in a sense brings us towards others who must suffer in a similar manner to Songlian, for they are locked within her own positioning and the empathy to be felt is rather extraordinary.
There’s an incredible subtlety present within Raise the Red Lantern that evokes a grand exercise within the human soul, for its picturing of the psychology that can be felt within the hierarchical system brings out a sense of humanity. Visually, it’s easy to say that it’s very beautiful but there’s no doubt to that, but when you also go ahead to consider the political intentions behind Raise the Red Lantern, what you’re left with is truly one of the most intelligent films of the 1990’s. It feels so elegantly done from start to finish, and at its core, it is truly one of the best feminist pictures ever made, as Zhang Yimou works in such a manner to meditate around his characters’s minds.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Orion Pictures.
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Screenplay by Ni Zhen, from the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong
Produced by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chiu Fu-sheng, Zhang Wenze
Starring Gong Li
Release Year: 1991
Running Time: 125 minutes