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Raise the Red Lantern

MGM // PG // July 24, 2007
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by DVD Savant | posted August 18, 2007 | E-mail the Author

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of the more popular imports of the 1990s, Raise the Red Lantern invites western viewers into an exotic foreign world -- a patriarchal Chinese household in which wife-concubines compete for the favors of their husband, The Master. The beautifully photographed tale presents an alien and hostile marital arrangement that makes desirable women into powerless birds in gilded cages.


The 1920s. The sad Songlian (Li Gong)'s father has died, so she is forced to leave the University. Her stepmother marries her off to a rich man in the city (Jingwu Ma), where she is installed as his 'fourth wife'. The third wife is Meishan, a bitterly jealous ex- opera singer (Caifei He) and the second is Zhouyan (Cuifen Cao), a much friendlier woman. The first wife Yuru (Jin Shuyuan) is far older, with a grown son away at school (Chu Xiao). Songlian finds that fitting in is next to impossible, as the other wives play wicked games to attract the attention of the Master. The house is run like a harem, with special favors granted to The Master's favorite of the moment; Songlian soon rebels against the centuries-old traditions. Her maid Yan'er (Lin Kong) is also hostile, as she secretly wants to be a concubine and has been passed over. Songlian finds herself in a complicated trap, not permitted to leave the house or communicate with outsiders. She also learns of the 'death house' on the second floor, where adulterous concubines of old have been taken and hanged.

As the average American movie of the 1980s swung toward lightweight action pictures and tedious comedies, we saw fewer serious stories about the past. Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern was embraced by art-house audiences for its intelligence and novelty. Author Su Tong's characters never voice feminist sentiments, but the egregiously oppressive situation makes a universal statement about women's rights.

Economically de-classed, Songlian has little choice but to let her stepmother sell her into marriage, an arrangement that grants her few personal rights. The tiny courtyard of The Master's imposing mansion becomes Songlian's entire world. Her master wants only sex, entertaining companionship and sons; love does not factor into the equation. Servants use large paper lanterns to decorate the room of the wife with whom The Master will sleep. The women inevitably find subtle ways to compete with one othe. When The Master is with Songlian, wife #3 feigns sickness or sings to disturb their rest. Songlian responds with muted anger because she has no dignity and no options. Rituals restrict the behavior of the wives and complaining about conditions is useless. They naturally turn against each other.

Everything we see in Raise the Red Lantern is fascinating. The Master's wish is everything, and he can sample the favors of the servant Yan'er on the side. Songlian's efforts to assert her personal will are stymied by the discovery that her strongest ally is two-faced, and her sworn enemy is really a soul mate, a 'sister under the silk'. Opportunities exist to contact other men -- The Master's grown son and a doctor are regular visitors to the walled house -- but nobody even wants to talk about the penalty for infidelity. As it is, the wives' energies are spent dragging each other down, whether intentionally or by accident. The patriarchy thrives because the females are utterly powerless.

Director Zhang's formal compositions make practically every shot in Raise the Red Lantern a thing of beauty. The angles are so well chosen that camera moves become almost invisible. The Master remains a remote character. Although he's present in many scenes, we never get a clear look at his face. Songlian has no honest relationship with him, as the rituals leave no room for real personal interaction. The Master behaves in a kind but wholly authoritarian manner. With millions starving, what right have his pampered wives to complain?

Star Li Gong (billed in the west as Gong Li) has since been active internationally; she's appeared in The Emperor and the Assassin, Memoirs of a Geisha and Miami Vice. We first think that her Songlian will shed her tears and become a standard 'strong female' character, using her heart and mind to better her lot in life. Raise the Red Lantern chooses instead to be faithful to historical realities.

MGM /Fox's DVD of Raise the Red Lantern looks fine, with an unblemished, richly colored image. The enhanced transfer is listed as 2:35 on the box, but it looks more like 1:85 to these eyes. The language is Mandarin Chinese, with removable subtitles in English, Spanish and French. There are no extras, a choice that puts MGM's library titles at a distinct disadvantage in the film aficionado market. Buyers interested in quality foreign classics like Raise the Red Lantern expect the DVD experience to teach them something. At Criterion, a small DVD boutique or even Warners, the film would at least have some kind of commentary. The feature presentation is excellent, but DVD viewers expect more.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Raise the Red Lantern rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 17, 2007

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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