Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Director:  Zhang Yimou
Cast:  Gong Li, Ma Jingwu, He Saifei
Plot:  After her father's death, nineteen year old Songlian is forced to marry Chen Zuoqian, the lord of a powerful family.

Genre:  Drama

Awards:  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Foreign Film.  Won Silver Lion (Venice).
Runtime:  125min
Rating:  PG for some mature content.


Zhang Yimou and Gong Li are legends of Asian cinema. Ju Dou (1990), To Live (1994), and Raise the Red Lantern are some of the most significant examples of their collaboration, most of which came in the early 1990s. They last worked on the overrated Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). 

One thing's for sure, Zhang should return to his roots in drama, because that's what he does best. There's a possibility that he might jeopardize his status as China's top director if he continues making stylized action films like Hero (2002).

Raise the Red Lantern is in my opinion not Yimou’s best work (though many will argue otherwise). But it's definitely one of his most controversial. Banned in China for political reasons and social implications, Red Lantern received commendable reviews in other parts of the globe for its daring portrayal of China's sordid past. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, it set Zhang on a path to directorial stardom.

One glance at Red Lantern and it's easy to see Yimou’s signature marks on the film; the rich and colorful cinematography (the reds and yellows are brilliantly captured), the natural elements (rain, snow, wind etc.) complementing the rustic traditional Chinese architecture, and the dramatic tension that is built within the well-developed characters. 

Interestingly, despite the sullen atmosphere of Red Lantern, the music used seems almost ceremonially joyous (there’re clashing of cymbals and opera songs), emphasizing the tonal contrast greatly.

Gong Li gives a subdued but effective performance as Songlian, the fourth mistress in a palace of mistresses and maids ruled by a Master, though her acting is not as emotionally wrenching as her role in To Live. Kong Lin who plays Songlian's personal maid deserves equal credit too. Her character is a pitiful one, and even though she fails, her determination to live like a mistress instead of a lowly servant resonates, making viewers sympathize with her.

There are a couple of sequences that are especially haunting. One of them, the hanging of a woman in an isolated small attic above the palace roofs in the midst of a cold, harsh winter. The silence that occurs throughout this sequence has a disquieting aura that makes viewers feel queasy.

Raise the Red Lantern plays out like an opera; the images are seductive yet claustrophobic (Zhang films almost every scene inside the four walls of the palace), and though it evokes a sense of peace and tranquility, the startling twists and turns in the story make everything appear ominous. In a nutshell, Raise the Red Lantern is pure film art, at least in the context of Chinese cinema, and is considered to be Zhang's most celebrated film.


Click here to go back to Central Station.




Popular Posts