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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Raise The Red Lantern
Raise The Red Lantern
Other // PG // June 10, 2000
List Price: $36.95 [Buy now and save at Hkflix]
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted November 7, 2001 | E-mail the Author
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THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Director Zhang Yimou belongs to the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, known for making beautiful, complex period pieces that manage to mostly slip criticism of the communist government under the radar of the censor board. Zhang's own output includes an impressive list of epics: Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, The Story of Qui Ju, To Live and Shanghai Triad. (His more recent films like Not One Less and The Long Road Home are much more modest in scale.)

His 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern helped introduce the style to a broader audience when it was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film. For some reason, however, this film has been underrepresented on DVD and ERA's Chinese DVD of Raise the Red Lantern does nothing to fix that oversight.

While the quality of the DVD nearly ruins the viewing experience, the film itself still merits discussion. Raise the Red Lantern is the story of Songlian (Gong Li), a young woman whose father's death forced her to withdraw from the university, leaving her with no other option but to marry into a rich family and become a subservient concubine. In the film's household she becomes fourth mistress, a position that creates some disdain among the first three wives and allows Songlian extra attention from the master of the house. Generations old customs are the most prominent aspect of life here and Songlian soon gets a lesson in what it means to be wife number four.

Each day the four wives wait in a corridor between each of their residences for one of the master's men. When the master deigns a wife worthy of his spending the night the servant plants a red lantern in front of her. For the next evening the chosen wife's residence is filled with red lanterns and she receives special attention from the staff, including a greatly cherished foot massage. Finally, the master sweeps in for the night and is then gone in the morning. This dehumanizing treatment turns the wives into a scheming bunch and Songlian quickly falls prey. Lacking in any other stimulus and cooped up in the house without any privacy, the wives come to treasure the treatment of the foot massage and the honor of choosing the next day's menu.

Since the wives greatly range in age, the younger, prettier wives receive the most attention. Initially third mistress seems Songlian's main rival while second mistress seems an ally. The duplicity of the women, however, eventually becomes clear and Songlian falls into the trap of back stabbing and betrayal. Meanwhile, the master keeps his hands clean by spending as little time around his wives as possible and treating them like cattle when he is there. In fact, he is so marginal to their daily lives that his face is never even shown. Much as Songlian, with her eyes cast downward, never sees his face, neither do we.

As if this social order weren't torture enough, Songlian discovers a small hut on the far corner of the roof. With the door locked, Songlian grows curious and the true horror of this hut's function ultimately leads to her downfall.

Zhang's directing here is as reserved and self-assured as ever. The film is constructed of clean, symmetrical compositions that place Songlian dead center, surrounded by a world in which she doesn't want to live. Gong Li perfectly communicates the struggle of Songlian. She's not an idealized heroine, but rather a bitter, angry, sometimes selfish girl. Her eyes lowered and her voice dropped nearly to a croak, she almost seems to be imploding from disgust. Even though the ending feels tacked on and serves to lessen some of the impact of the film (it's similar to the ending of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in that way), the overall emotional impact of Songlian's story is unmistakably powerful.

VIDEO:
Sadly, the video on this release is a disgusting mess. It's non-anamorphic widescreen but is clearly taken from a worn print. The colors are faded, there is a total lack of detail and contrast, there is a great deal of damage, and the image wiggles up and down throughout, as if the tripod that the camera sat on during the transfer wasn't locked off. Also, Chinese and English subtitles are burned in to the print but are blurry and indistinct to the point that much of it is illegible. As much as this film is worth a look, this transfer makes the disc a must-miss. (This same releasing company has put out a disc of Zhang's enormous To Live, which has been correctly compared to Gone With the Wind. Presumably that release is to be avoided as well.)

AUDIO:
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is fine for much of the film, although at moments it distorts. It is better overall than the picture but not by much. The dialog is in Mandarin.

EXTRAS:
There are no extras. There are some Chinese text screens.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Raise the Red Lanternis one of the Fifth Generation's key films (along with The Blue Kite, Farewell, My Concubine, and my own personal favorite, Yellow Earth) and deserves a top-notch DVD release. Unfortunately this isn't it and I would recommend that interested viewers hold out. Zhang's films are working their way onto DVD in higher quality versions and Raise the Red Lantern has to come out eventually. With a substandard disc like this one on the market in the meantime, however, it will be worth the wait.

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