Raise the Red Lantern

Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there. My family and I had a celebration on Saturday - a wonderful cook out with my aunt and uncle. Today, I mostly ran errands (got some cute office supplies for my desk at work), but I got home for some grilling and raspberry tart with my parents.

I will admit, I was a little less than enthused to watch today's movie. It is Raise the Red Lantern, directed by Zhang Yimou in 1991. The title gave me the impression that it was some sort of bland historical film, or at least something boring. I read a brief plot summary before I watched it, and immediately became so much more interested in the film - and relieved to find out it wasn't another 3 hour epic like I had imagined.

The movie is beautiful to look at, and a little unsettling to watch. It's got a really fascinating plot, and incredible acting. I was immediately drawn into the film in the first few minutes - the look of it was so awesome that I immediately wanted to keep watching and see more.

The movie is about Songlian, the fourth mistress of a wealthy master. She moves into a large, maze-like home with three other women. They each have their own house, but visit each other and spend mealtimes together. Her first night there, red lanterns are lit outside her home - they signal which woman the master will spend the night with. In addition to the beautiful lights, the woman of choice is treated to a luxurious foot massage, and the food of her choice the next day. The mistresses all compete for the attention of the master, finding ways to draw him away from the others. Songlian is drawn into this as well, and quickly begins manipulating others around her.

For the subject matter, the movie is really chaste - there's no nudity or sex. There are moments when the women close their eyes and bask in pleasure...during the foot massages. At times, I almost felt like the competition was not so much about sex or the man, but about foot massages and dinner choices. The master is so absent from the whole movie (although very present, because his rules are still enforced in his absence) that it really didn't feel like he had anything to do with the games that the mistresses were playing with each other. They never seemed interested in him...they just seemed interested in screwing with each other. Maybe it was a by-product of the suffering they endured from their situation - like how those who were abused often become abusers themselves.

The visuals of the film are pretty astonishing. Wikipedia mentions a bunch of horrible DVD releases with bad image quality, but I must have got the one good release, because I was really happy with how this movie looked. The colors were so rich and saturated, and I loved how they were used. The outside of the houses was always tan and gray - so dull looking. The inside of the homes were bright and vibrant, full of reds and yellows. The lanterns cast such a vivid color on all surfaces, and it just gave the movie such a cool atmosphere. The red lanterns were a strange concept at first, but once I saw how beautiful the red glow was, I started to feel like I could almost understand the competition between the women. The color so brightened up the film, and made everything feel so magical.  It created a lot of empathy for the characters, for me, because I could imagine the pleasure of a foot massage and paper lanterns, and the joy it would bring the otherwise horrible situation.

The lack of color in the outside environment makes it sort of creepy and weird, too. There are all sorts of paths and staircases connecting rooftops, and even a horrible little room with dusty women's shoes inside. When Songlian asks about the room, she is told that women have died there before, but a long time ago. The presence of the room is ominous, and gave the plot a more disturbing undertone. If the women acted out too much, would they be taken to the room? What other arbitrary rules and ancient customs did they follow? I thought the psychological warfare the women waged on each other was already unsettling - the creepy house did not make me feel any better. I don't mean unsettling here like, an unsettling horror movie. It's sad to see the women in this situation, and it's sad that they are so wounded by it. It's unsettling in the sense that it's hard to see how people react to something so unfortunate and difficult, if that makes any sense. A glimpse into the psyche that maybe we didn't want, I guess.

I really liked this movie, and I enjoyed all aspects of it. I hope those of you who haven't seen this film give it a rent, it's pretty incredible.

Have any of you seen Raise the Red Lantern? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Raise the Red Lantern
Buy it on Amazon


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