Released in the U.S. less than three years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the most esteemed movie by the best-known filmmaker that mainland China has ever produced took another two years to see the light of a projector on its native soil. Zhang Yimou has strenuously denied that Raise the Red Lantern, itself a violent tale of revolt and repression in the master’s house, was a vehicle of political critique. This was the standard line of Fifth Generation directors—those who, like Zhang, Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), and Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite), attended film school in Beijing after the demise of the Cultural Revolution and thereafter took care to plant their allegories in the distant past. But Zhang, who was sent with his parents to “reeducate” himself through 10 years of hard labor in the countryside (and who sold his blood to buy a camera), did admit to seeing a gilded cage when he looked through the lens at his palatial Lantern set, an ancient feudal-patriarchal compound in Shanxi Province. “Its high walls formed a rigid square-grid pattern that perfectly expresses the age-old obsession with strict order,” he said in 1993. “We [Chinese] have a historical legacy of extinguishing human desire.”
Sex and power, seized and stifled, are the intertwined subjects of Raise the Red Lantern. The film’s tale of tit-for-tat machination among a wealthy man’s indentured wives takes place in the 1920s—although the post-revolution period equally determines its stylistic tussle between expression and restraint. (It’s somehow appropriate that the movie hasn’t been allowed to reveal itself fully for 15 years, thanks to a series of smudged video transfers; the 35mm print opening at Film Forum this week has been restored from the negative.) Visually ravishing and emotionally cold, Zhang’s third feature is one long series of pushes and pulls. Red light here means go. The title refers to the crimson lamps that, placed outside the door of a wife’s house, discreetly signify where the master (rarely seen, and never in close-up) will lie on a given night. The choice is all his, but that only makes the mistresses more determined to scratch up whatever slivers of control they can. Fringe benefits of getting the master’s nod include menu selection and a foot rub.
Fourth Mistress is the 19-year-old Songlian (a stunning Gong Li), who at the start of the film quits school to become a slave—roughly the opposite trajectory of Zhang’s. Crying in the first shot (“Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that a woman’s fate?), Songlian learns to be bitchy within minutes of arriving on the scene, chastising the servant girl who challenges her. Mistresses three and four develop a particularly catty repartee—”Still angry about the spinach and bean curd?”—but Zhang’s intermittent aerial shots make clear that a wife of any rank is dwarfed by the master’s design. Each mistress has her own way of acting out: Songlian, after enjoying a brief stint as the man’s woman of choice, turns to tearing a rival’s flesh, faking a pregnancy, then more or less flipping out and shutting down. Or is this the point at which Fourth Mistress finally smartens up?
In China, Raise the Red Lantern was interpreted as a veiled allegory of the Gang of Four. In the U.S., one of the only negative reviews was that of The Washington Post‘s Hal Hinson, who denigrated Zhang’s film as a “Chinese rendition of The Women.” What’s wrong with that? Then as now, catty dissent is a sign of health in any master’s domain; going “crazy” can be the only sane response to insanity.