Harlot's Web

Fans of Zhang Yimou's haunting and visually striking epic Raise the Red Lantern may want to check out Li Shaohong's new film Blush, a lush adaption of a novel by Su Tong, who also wrote the book upon which Raise the Red Lantern was based. Like Yimou's film, Shaohong's provides a sumptuous feast for the eyes while spinning a tale of wives and concubines.

But Blush's narrative lacks Lantern's originality; the love triangle between two former prostitutes and a wealthy young landowner occasionally veers into melodrama. Storywise, the new film doesn't hold a candle to Lantern.

But it sure is a treat to look at. Shaohong and her cinematographer Zheng Nianping brilliantly manipulate light, shadow, color, and texture to compose shot after lavish and exquisite shot, enabling them to tell much of their story without expository dialogue or narration. They suffuse the film with a burnished glow and cram in so much period detail (the story begins in 1949 and takes place as the new communist regime of Chairman Mao endeavors to wipe out the archaisms of old China) that Blush feels more like a memory than a movie. You almost wish they had simply compiled a book of still photographs instead of a motion picture.

The film's strong visual appeal asserts itself from the opening scene of no-nonsense Maoist soldiers closing down the Red Happiness Inn -- a high-class brothel on the outskirts of Shanghai. The foreboding sky, the muddy street, and the soldiers' khaki uniforms all form a drab gray-brown backdrop that dramatically sets off the brightly hued silk raiments of the Inn's working gals as they board the dilapidated tub of a boat that will carry them off to be "re-educated." You can't miss the filmmakers' point: The closing of the brothel marks the end of an era. With the decadent women goes the last trace of China's traditional life and color.

One headstrong prostitute named Qiuyi (Wang Ji) escapes and hides out with former client Lao Pu (Wang Zhiwen), the scion of a wealthy family headed by an imperious matriarch. Mama doesn't approve of her wastrel son's new gal pal and makes life miserable for the renegade courtesan. When Lao Pu, rather than standing up to the old lady, suggests moving Qiuyi into a new love nest, the unhappy hooker splits in a huff. She has nowhere to go, and eventually seeks refuge in a Buddhist nunnery where, in one of the film's most striking images, Qiuyi shears her luxuriant locks to prove her willingness to renounce her worldly past. One niggling little problem, though -- she's pregnant by Lao Pu. When that becomes obvious to the other nuns, they banish her.

Meanwhile, Lao Pu experiences a few problems of his own. The dejected loverboy finds himself caught in a dilemma that suggests a Chinese "House of the Rising Sun"; the communist regime may have closed down the Red Happiness Inn, but its erstwhile tenants are the ruin of that poor boy. Qiuyi's former best friend and Red Happiness co-worker, the gold-digging Xiao'e (He Saifei), seduces Lao Pu and manipulates him into marrying her. But the same communist killjoys who shuttered the star-crossed young man's favorite recreation center also divest his family of its wealth, leaving him unable to support his new high-maintenance bride in the manner to which she would like to become reaccustomed. Xiao'e gets pregnant and hounds her guilt-ridden spouse -- who still loves Qiuyi -- for money that he no longer has. Lao Pu, backed into a corner, makes one final desperate attempt both to placate his wife and see Qiuyi again.

Wang Zhiwen's touching performance becomes the film's soulful centerpiece as Lao Pu goes from carefree playboy to tragic victim of love. The novice actor's richly nuanced and charismatic work rises above the story's soap opera dimensions, as do passionate turns from his more experienced costars, Wang Ji and He Saifei. Buttressed by director Li Shaohong's ornate imagery, the three compelling performances inject some lifeblood into a movie that would otherwise remain obscured in shadows cast by Raise the Red Lantern.

Written by Ni Zhen and Li Shaohong; directed by Li Shaohong; with Wang Ji, Wang Zhiwen, and He Saifei.


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