BANNED MEDIA MONTH #9: Raise the Red Lantern, by Zhang Yimou (1991)

Type of Media: Film

A lot of people in this world don't actually have much choice in how they get to live their lives. Whether this is due to strict authoritarian rule, restrictive social constructs, or the exploitation of economic inequality, most people are made to be dependent on some kind of master for their continued prosperity. Sometimes this works in a way where everyone involved is satisfied, but it can be hard to tell whether that satisfaction is actually silent, prolonged suffering. What looks like a life of luxury could actually function more like a golden cage.

Raise the Red Lantern, set in 1920s China, follows nineteen-year-old woman Songlian (played by Gong Li) and her life as a concubine for the wealthy Master Chen. After her father dies, leaving the family penniless, Songlian leaves university to become Chen's Fourth Mistress, moving into an estate with his three other mistresses. Every evening Chen chooses which mistress he will spend the night with, signaled by lighting red lanterns in their portion of the estate. The mistresses constantly compete over the Master's affections as the woman he chooses gets special privileges for the day, like a foot massage or getting to choose the dinner menu.

Songlian is quickly taken in by the petty intrigue of the estate and develops rivalries with the Second Mistress, the Third Mistress, and her servant Yan'er who aspires to be a concubine herself. They each feign illness to garner sympathy, collect dirt on one another, and orchestrate scandals to rack up as many nights as possible with Master Chen so they can achieve their ultimate goal: bearing him a son. Eventually this competition spirals out of control, leaving the ambitious women of the house either dead or scarred.

While Raise the Red Lantern achieved critical acclaim in the West, it was banned in China for a period after its release. The Chinese government insisted that Yimou made the film as a critique of authoritarian rule, though Yimou denies this was his intention. Still, even if Yimou wasn't criticizing China's government directly, he was certainly exploring the madness of being forced to bow to the whims of a single supreme ruler. The mistresses squabble and strive to be Master Chen's favorite and give him a son, even though the First Mistress, the mother of his eldest son, is completely ignored by him. They lead a hollow existence, fighting for small comforts while slowly sinking into old age and irrelevance.

The film's portrayal of women's treatment by men is similarly dismal. Songlian is almost forced to marry Master Chen due to her family circumstances. Her fate is so inevitable, and her life so controlled, that after a few weeks at the estate she can't even think to be angry at her husband, her true oppressor, and spends her time playing the petty game he has set before her. The Master's presence hangs over the ancient estate at all times, and the law is either his word or a custom of his family. The mistresses, the servants, and even his sons live their lives according to what makes the Master happy.

Many reviews praise Raise the Red Lantern for its visuals, and it deserves every bit of praise it gets. The cinematography isn't flashy, but each shot is framed very carefully and often centered on the subject. More impressive is the set and costume design, which uses a variety of deep reds to communicate the power of each character at a given time. Though its filmed in a very old and dusty Chinese mansion, the visual design manages to make it look both grand and desolate at the same time.

Raise the Red Lantern may not be the sly critique of the Chinese regime that some assumed it to be, but it is a great look at the conditions of economic slavery and a reminder of the games those in power can play to keep people divided. If you're looking for a slow-burning drama that's beautiful to look at, give Raise the Red Lantern a watch.