Saturday, August 1, 2015

CANON OF FILM: "RAISE THE RED LANTERN"

RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991)

Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenplay: Ni Zhen based on the novel by Su Tong



I swear that the timing of this is purely coincidental with Beijing getting the Winter Olympics this week, but you probably most know director Zhang Yimou as the orchestrator of arguably the greatest artistic performance achievement ever when he directed the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Summer Olympics. Using over 15,000 Chinese people, almost 5,000 more than the amount of athletes who participated in the games, Zhang’s Opening Ceremonies was the unofficial opening to the rest of the world of the ever-changing People’s Republic of China as a world power, and an expression of wonderment. This is a man whose films have been banned in China at times, like “Raise the Red Lantern,” not that they necessarily criticized China or its government but mostly because of the dark light he puts on the country. Saying that though, he’s also achieved great success even in the states, most recently with martial arts movies like “House of Flying Daggers,” and “Hero,” with Jet Li, and even a remake of the Coen Brothers, "Blood Simple" called "A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop", (Which I actually think is better than the original "Blood Simple", which I must confess, I always thought was overrated, sorry.) but his earlier work is often noted for the locked-in choices, particularly involving females in the country’s recent past, like the Oscar-nominated “Ju-Dou,” and this film, which also received and Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film, as well as making it’s star Gong Li, one of the most popular actresses in the world.

“Raise the Red Lantern”, like all his movies are stunningly beautiful to look at, even when analyzing such controversial and unyieldingly disturbing concepts. Taking place some time around the 1920’s, although you're forgiven if you thought this film took place a few centuries earlier, Songlian (Gong) has gone deep into a forest where she’s going to become the fourth wife of the master (Jingwa Ma, rarely seen) of his, for lack of a better term, estate. It’s really more of a secluded off, closed in world hidden behind walls where each of his wives are given their own home to live in. The Master decides which of his wives he’ll be staying at on a particular night, and to signify this, numerous red lantern and hung outside se wife’s house. It is unclear to me whether or not this practice was ever done in China, or at least occurring as recently as the early 20th Century, but it's insinuated that this is a familial practice that's lasted generations and preserved not only by the Master, but by the numerous help he has around him. The wife who is being preferred most often is given many privileges in the House, (“House,”  in the Royal sense) and this naturally causes dissension between the wives, especially involving third wife, (Caifei He) a former Opera singer who’s constantly becoming ill late enough at night and insisting on Master’s presence, and Second Wife (Cuifen Cao) a nice and pleasing woman who uses any weaknesses to her advantage.

This disturbing form of prostitution is cause enough that the film was banned in China, but the fascinating way in which Zhang reveals how within the solitude of this far off place, away from much of civilization can lead to such barbaric acts out of as boredom as well as raising of stature makes the movie a complicated one to sort out in any realistic way. It’s a parable for something, and I’m sure, not being as familiar with Chinese literature readings as I’d like, I’m sure I’m missing a few greater details. Yet, Zhang’s films are just fascinating to watch, as his precision to absolute detail on both the grandest and minimalist scale creates an ever-increasing  beauty within the film. An image he often comes back to, opening the movie, and than closing scenes with, is a long take close-up of Gong Li, often just listening to someone else talking to her. Her acting is incredible in the movie, but these and the majority of the scenes in fact are shot in a perfect symmetry in the shots that reveal not only the perfect order expecting of many of his characters, but the perfection Zhang strives for in his self. 
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