Tuesday, 13 March 2012

#32 China — Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Sorry for the delay, I had to take a whole day out to travel to Ipswich and back for an Undergraduate of the Year assessment. Should be back on schedule from now.

Although more famous for his recent wuxia films such as The House of Flying Daggers and Hero, Yimou made some rather excellent dramas earlier in his career — and boy are they pretty. Raise the Red Lantern is one of the latter and perhaps his best, alongside his 1994 epic To Live.

Polygamy in films is something that I have found interesting since watching a few African films. The interplay between the wives is completely alien to my Western mind and is ofter fascinating. Raise the Red Lantern is no different and is a particularly great example of this. The four wives of a rich and powerful lord in 1920s China are the focus of the film. They are constantly vying for his love and attention whilst attempting to maintain tenuous friendships. When I say "focus", I mean focus. We never even see the lord's face because his character isn't important to the proceedings, only what his character represents.

The cinematography is fantastic, coupling a very naturally beautiful lighting style and a more emotionless ultra-symmetric and thoughtfully composed framing method. This style emphasises the properness expected of the wives and the near mathematical ways in which they live. The framing also shows how trapped the fourth wife (Gong Li) is in this world by only showing the sky a number of times you could count on one hand. Colour filters are put to very good use (anyone who has read my Red Desert review will know that it is very rare for me to say that) and go together with the rich colour palate to create a fairly dense symbolic language which often says more than the characters do.

Culturally, the film may pose a challenge for some viewers. The aforementioned polygamy, coupled with the completely Eastern opera singing present a very different view of the world and make it more difficult to pick up on some of the subtleties which a greater understanding of the environment would give. If you are like me, however, you will find this a fascinating window into what seems like another world.

The acting is fantastic all round. Characters are played with equal measures of restraint and subtle expressivity. This compliments the soft lighting and measured pace very well, creating a fairly relaxed but involving atmosphere.

Although the slow development and lack of particularly relatable characters sometimes causes the narrative to drag slightly, the other aspects more than make up for it. Those interested in different cultures, or viewers who just enjoy a well crafted film will definitely appreciate Raise the Red Lantern. Even if synopses you find don't seem particularly engaging, I'd still recommend giving this film a watch.

Also recommended from China:
Other films by Zhang Yimou (Hero, To Live, The House of Flying Daggers)
Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle)
Spring in a Small Town
Song at Midnight


  1. Hi, I'm here to beg you to visit my blog I started last week ;)
    It's something I have thought of for the last months and decided to start now. The idea is simple - I make top 5 lists of films or anything that has to do with movies in different categories. Right now I'm working on a few different ideas, like "Top 5 cabin in the woods films" or "Top 5 movies taking place on a small boat"

    I'd be happy to have you as a visitor, since you seem to know a lot about film. :)

    1. Oh, I forgot the link :)