We gave it a B
In China in the 1920s, a wealthy patriarch lives with his four wives in a feudal manor house — a fortress so sprawling and mazelike it suggests an elaborate prison compound. In essence, the women are in prison. They’re concubines, ”mistresses” to be used at will, and they’re trapped in a life of claustrophobic splendor. Their only real freedom lies in the power they can muster over one another.
The patriarch signals where he’ll spend any given night by an ancient family custom, the hanging of glowing red-orange lanterns. The more time he spends in any one wife’s chambers, the more clout she has. As the women scheme, spy, and cajole, like a quartet of Lady Macbeths, we follow their subliminal jockeying through the eyes of 19-year-old Songlian (Gong Li), the youngest and most beautiful of the four, and the most rebellious. Gong, with her saucy stare and air of bratty entitlement, is like an early-20th-century Madonna. Her Songlian gives in to the sensuality of her new life — foot massages, rich meals, sleeping with the master — even as her eyes cue you to realize she wants more.
Directed by Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, Red Sorghum), Raise the Red Lantern is as slow, quiet, and ritualized as the life it depicts. Most of the movie unfolds in stationary long shot. On the few occasions when Zhang moves in for the close-up, there’s not much action, only flickers of expression darting across the actresses’ faces. Yet those faces hold us with surprising power.
Much of the movie is comic in spirit. Zhang knows there’s something deeply absurd about a life that reduces grown women to scheming schoolgirls. By the end, though, Raise the Red Lantern aspires to something darker, a true feminist vision. I wish the movie had been more dramatically charged, and more erotic as well. Zhang revels in the beauty of his actresses, yet he treats sex itself as just another ceremony. The appeal of Raise the Red Lantern lies in its atmosphere of exotic detachment. The movie invites us to share a life in which all emotional desire has been bound, subjugated, organized into a bleakly funny — and finally tragic — game.