Raise the Red Lantern (MGM World Films)
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Songlian, an educated nineteen-year-old girl, is forced to leave college to become the fourth wife of a powerful, feudal nobleman and becomes involved in the intrigues and rivalries between his other wives.
Genre: Foreign Film - Chinese
Release Date: 24-JUL-2007
Media Type: DVD
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Songlian (Gong Li), a 19-year-old student in 1920 China, must leave college when her father dies. Her stepmother arranges for her to marry a rich man as a fourth "wife." From then, Songlian's life, everything, depends on the attention she will receive from this man we scarcely see. The first mistress is middle-aged, serene and cool. The second is attractive and appears sympathetic and friendly. The third is young, beautiful and intensely jealous that Songlian may replace her as the most favored by Master Chen. Each has a maid. The servants reflect the attitudes of those they serve, but above all else, they reflect their roles in the Master's house. Again and again we return to an overhead shot that shows us where the universe begins and ends for Songlian...a stone courtyard with stone buildings on either side and the entrance at the end of the courtyard leading up low stairs to where Songlian now will live. When the Master intends to visit one of the wives for the night, it is the custom that the servants ceremoniously raise red lanterns outside the apartment of the favored wife.
And this is all that their lives...and now, Songlian's life...consists of. There is no outside world, only their duty to serve the Master and to follow the customs of the Chen family, which goes back generations. If the red lantern is raised frequently outside Songlian's doorway, a servant tells her, she will soon be running the establishment. The other wives know this. Songlian is educated, sullen and resentful. She may realize that she must establish herself in the favor of the Master and find her place in the world of the wives, but we realize she may not have the guile needed. The intensity of establishing and maintaining "place" means resentments and betrayals. There can be no friendships. Songlian does not play this game well. Songlian's life eventually becomes as desolate as the cold snow that drifts down into the courtyard.
Raise the Red Lantern is a gorgeous movie, as are most of Yimou Zhang's films. The seasons change from spring to summer to fall and to winter. We keep returning to Songlian and to the view of the courtyard, but we also see out over what seems the endless tile roofs of the Master's mansion. High on the roof is a small stone shed that is kept locked and which, it is whispered, had something to do with a former wife.
At first the stone exteriors seem small and the interiors seem to go on and on. We see Songlian dressed lavishly to await the Master's visits. We see ornate furniture, wall scrolls, braziers against the chill and the red lanterns. We seldom see tears. Raise the Red Lantern is no tragedy, but it is a kind of slow-playing, hopeless melodrama. It is a reserved world where for these four women and their servants, everything depends on the Master. For Songlian, everything depends on her willingness to bend completely to this life from which she cannot leave, and to accept that there can be no relief from the need to scheme and plot to maintain a position against the other wives. To befriend can lead to betrayal. To sympathize can lead to rejection. To let slip a secret can lead to death. The customs of the ancient Chen family must be honored and followed, and can be cruel. To serve the Master whenever he wishes, with skill and charm, and to bear him a son, is what life has become, and there is no escape. The Master's life goes on. Our last view of Songlian is in the courtyard, in winter, wandering.
Anyone who reads this should shake their head and wonder what all the fuss is about. Get the movie and watch it, then you try to describe it. You'll feel inadequate.
This MGM World Films disc is widescreen, dual layer and looks much better than a previous release. I could find nothing that would indicate it is anamorphic. There are no extras. The subtitles are white with black edging and are easy to read. Raise the Red Lantern deserves first-class treatment, but this will have to do until that happens.
Our heroine tries very hard to have a say in the house, to be of consequence, to be treated with respect and that is only possible if she wins favour with the husband and master ... But at the same time so does every single one of the wifes! And so tragedy inevitably takes its course ...
A side note: "Raise the Red Lantern" is apparently a famous and widely known novel in China. (I have a chinese friend whom I talked to about the movie and she does NOT like it! She insists that the director changed and shortened too many things ... Well, I don't care because even if I wanted to read it I don't think the book is available in english and so I enjoyed the movie as it is tremendously.)
Without giving much of the story away this film creates the most poignant study of the differences in personalities. If I had a fifteen year old I'd ask him or her to watch carefully to learn about how our perceptions of what we see in others may be greatly mistaken. The focus of the different wives living in relatively the same proximity makes such an impression. Without the silly fighting that the West mistaken believes is commonly characteristic of the far East you come away greatly impacted by the story of Raise the Red Lantern. I am in my fifties and I could not be more impressed in a film.