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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

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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