Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Arguably Zhang’s masterpiece, this plays out like an opera, at times ceremonial, at times tragic, but always tense and captivating.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Dir. Zhang Yimou
1991 | China | Drama | 125 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin
PG (passed clean) for some mature content

Cast: Gong Li, Ma Jingwu, He Saifei
Plot: A young woman becomes the fourth wife of a wealthy lord, and must learn to live with the strict rules and tensions within the household.
Awards: Won Silver Lion & FIPRESCI Prize; Nom. for Best Foreign Language Film (Oscars)

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Tradition, Oppression
Narrative Style:  Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: DVD
First Published: 22 Mar 2008
Spoilers: No

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.

Raise the Red Lantern
 is arguably Zhang’s finest work together with To Live and certainly 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.

One glance at Red Lantern and it’s easy to see Zhang’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.

“If you act well, you can fool other people; if you do it badly, you can only fool yourself, and when you can’t even fool yourself, you just can fool the ghosts.”

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.

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.

Grade: A+




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