When it comes to heaping praise on foreign films, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has not been, traditionally speaking, a very good judge of quality - artistic, scientific, or other. Any audience member with a journeyman knowledge of the movies can casually bet his house that, of the films vying for the coveted golden statuette, the least impressive will always walk away with it. Two films by Zhang Yimou are a case in point. The gifted Chinese director has been acclaimed around the world (although he has yet to taste success on the mainland), but was prey to the Academy's pedestrian Philistinism. Zhang has twice played the bridesmaid, once after 1990's Ju Dou, and again with 1991's Raise the Red Lantern (which opened last Friday, for a limited run, at the CocoWalk 8 in Coconut Grove). The first snub was lamentable, the second a scandal.
Raise the Red Lantern, while not a masterpiece, is one of the most thoughtful reflections in recent years on the history of women and their place in society. It is, additionally, a film of considerable technical finish and eye-catching beauty. Working within a specific time frame in both films (the rigid, feudal China of the Twenties), Zhang's treatment of women's small - and, alas, fruitless - steps toward independence is distinguished by a subtle storytelling flair, a classical, symmetrical camera technique, and by the truthfulness and poignance of the female characters. But above all, there's the haunting, lyrical screen presence of Gong Li, Zhang's favorite performer and the protagonist in Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern.
This actress seems to perform miracles of communication with the greatest economy of movement and expression. Maybe that's her secret, that complete naturalness before the camera. That she is tremendously lovely to look at only heightens Gong Li's sense of authenticity, because in both films she plays what Luis Bunuel would have called an obscure object of desire.
The Bunuel reference is deliberate: Zhang's parallel focus on the rigidity of class systems and the interior lives of women recalls the renegade Spanish director's later films, especially Tristana and Viridiana. In Ju Dou, Gong was the name character, the succulent young bride of a wealthy textile man who, among other things, is cruel and impotent. The girl, too poor to choose her own spouse, has an affair with the old merchant's mealy-mouthed nephew, who isn't rich enough to afford one. They conceive a child, and Ju Dou convinces the geezer it's his own. Then, heightening the irony, the child grows into a munchkin-size version of the miserly old man. And a violent end ensues.
Produced with funds laundered through Hong Kong banks and under-the-table dealings with an officially "unfriendly" Taiwanese government, Ju Dou was censored in the People's Republic of China. Perhaps it was interpreted as political protest: the old man representing decaying Maoist rule. More likely it was the frank sexuality of the story that offended what remains a strict, puritanical society. No matter: Zhang has returned to both themes, sexual autocracy and the human, sensual disregard of authority, in Raise the Red Lantern. And has been awarded the same cold-shoulder treatment by mainland China.
The film takes place during one calendar year separated into four seasons. It is summer, and nineteen-year-old Songlian (Gong Li) decides to drop out of college, resignedly accepting an offer of marriage to the 50-year-old master of the wealthy Chen family (Ma Jingwu), who already has three wives living in his palatial compound. The first wife (Jin Shuyuan) is a dried-up dowager who laments over Songlian's youth when she meets her; the second, middle-age wife (Cao Cuifeng) is superficially merry and brimming with support; the third (He Caifei), a young ex-opera singer, is the most competitive for the master's affections. The tug-of-war among the wives, each of whom lives with her own house, courtyard, and servant, is more or less constant. As is the battle between Songlian and her maid, Yan'er (Kong Lin).
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An impressive pageant precedes each bout of sexual intercourse. With the greatest degree of ceremony, when the master decides to spend the night with one of his wives, a red lantern is lit in front of the entrance door, and more are ignited inside. (The master likes to assignate in the light.) In preparation (and as part of the ritual), the lucky wife has her feet washed and massaged for its apparently sex-enhancing effect. These scenes are filmed by Zhang as a succession of long shots, and they're marvelous; for despite the abundance of brightness, we never get a close look at the master. His physical remoteness underscores the master's dominion over his wives - and the fact that sex for these women, particularly in this regimented world, is a submissive act.
Apart from the captivating performance by Gong, the wives are played for all they're worth by three fine, varied actresses. Particular mention goes to Cao Cuifeng as Concubine Number Two, the wife with the most dimensions. Raise the Red Lantern is very much an ensemble success. The intrigues and longings depicted here (as they were in Ju Dou) play like a feminist soap opera - amusing and tragic in equal proportions. This time, though, Zhang avoids a brutal ending, which, without giving anything away, can best be described as world-wise, acutely aware of human patterns capitulated over and over, and -in its characterful evocation of China's not-so-Roaring Twenties - passionately aligned to the concept, and practice, of personal expression.
RAISE THE RED LANTERN
Directed by Zhang Yimou; written by Ni Zhen from the novel, Wives and Concubines, by Su Tong; with Gong Li, Ma Jingwou, He Caiffei, Cao Cuifeng, Jin Shuyuan, Kong Lin, Ding Weimin, and Chu Xiao.
In Mandarin with English subtitles.