Unquestionably one of the best films of the 1990s, Yimou Zhang's Raise the Red Lantern (Da hong deng long gao gao gua, 1991) is the type of movie practically extinct in mainstream American cinema. Leisurely paced but utterly engrossing, it's driven almost entirely by its rich characterizations and an exquisitely understated pictorial design. Co-winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film (it lost to Italy's Mediterraneo, hardly justified), the film is an absolute must-see.
Fortunately, ERA's region-free remastered edition of this Chinese-Japanese-Hong Kong co-production does justice to Fei Zhao's sumptuous, award-winning cinematography, among the best of the last several decades.
Frequent Yimou Zhang collaborator Li Gong stars as university-educated 19-year-old Songlian, who in 1920s China agrees to marry into the wealthy Chen clan after her father, a tea merchant, dies. She becomes the "Fourth Mistress" to 50-something Master Chen (Jingwu Ma), his face obscured or seen only in long shots throughout the film. Each mistress lives in her own house on the lonely, palatial estate.
Steeped in tradition and ritual perhaps hundreds of years old, the mistresses await their master's bidding each evening: a red lantern is placed in front of the door with whom he will bed with that evening.
Adapted from Su Tong's novel Wives and Concubines, the story primarily revolves around Songlian's relationships with her three predecessors as well as her maid, Yan'er (Lin Kong), with whom the Master also sometimes makes love and who had dearly coveted becoming his Fourth Mistress. The First Wife (Jin Shuyuan) is, like the Master, in her fifties, past her prime and thus wielding little power in the household other than as its symbolic matriarch. The Second Mistress, Zhouyan (Cuifen Cao), is kind and sociable upon Songlian's arrival, while both Yan'er and The Third Mistress, former opera singer Meishan (Caifei He), treat the new arrival with open contempt when the Master isn't around.
Though initially not particularly happy with her arranged marriage, Songlian gradually looks forward to her master's attentions and becomes distressed when, after a time, its benefits are casually taken away as he moves from one bed to another. She has no love for him particularly, other than perhaps to satisfying her occasional need for sex (and, eventually, motherhood), but rather it's something else.
Essentially, the film seems to be saying that, confined to such a limited universe with little to do, virtually nothing of their own (the Master has her father's flute, a treasured heirloom, burned when he wrongly assumes it was the gift of an ex-lover), and their identity stifled - virtually the entire film takes place on the grounds of the Chen estate - the women are reduced to fighting among themselves for the meager compensations being the selected mistress entails: foot massages and the privilege of selecting the dinner menu, among other things.
In the end they become so scheming and petty toward one another in trying to curry their master's favor that they're unable to see the extreme cruelty of the very arrangement, and his utter disregard for them as human beings.
The story has no illusions about the emancipation of these women. Though Songlian initially appears the fiercely independent, determined mistress who'll break the pattern of subservience (she carries who own luggage to the estate and insists on walking there rather than be driven in the family carriage), all her intelligence and assertion of her limited authority only makes her fall from grace that much more agonizing.
Video & Audio
ERA's all-region "Digitally Remastered Edition" of Raise the Red Lantern is at least the third release of this title, following the label's region-free version from 2001 that was not enhanced, and Razor Digital very poor unenhanced edition released at the beginning of this year. This new version is a stunner, 16:9 enhanced (at 1.77:1, approximating its 1.85:1 OAR), dual-layered, and progressive, nearly flawless. All this is absolutely essential because of Fei Zhao's incredible cinematography, which uses twilight much as Nestor Almendros had on Days of Heaven (1978) which those glowing orange-red lanterns used for visual punctuation.** The Dolby Stereo sound is just fine; subtitles supporting the Mandarin dialogue are available in English, traditional and simplified Chinese.
The only supplements are a spoiler-filled Chinese or perhaps Hong Kongese trailer, also 16:9, and a fairly impressive photo gallery.
Yimou Zhang's films, particularly Raise the Red Lantern, have introduced a very large number of western world audiences to Chinese cinema and culture. For their informative, fascinating depictions of rural country life, of familial and master-servant, peasant-official pecking orders and relationships alone his films would be worth watching. That they're also superb character studies that make you forget you're watching a movie and not there in the midst of it make them especially remarkable achievements. And ERA's remastered edition, though light on supplements, is a clear DVD Talk Collector Series title.
** Some critics, including Roger Ebert, have stated that Yimou Zhang's films from this period were shot in "three-strip Technicolor," but this is probably a mistake. Apparently the film was printed in IB Technicolor from a monopack color process, a printing method no longer used in America and Britain.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.