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"Good or bad, it's all playacting. If you act well, you can fool other people; if you do it badly, you can only fool yourself, and when you can't even fool yourself, you just can fool the ghosts."
—Meishan, Third Concubine.
Raise the Red Lantern is an award-winning 1991 film directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li, in the role that brought her to international attention. It is set in the early 1920s, well before the rise of communism.
After the death of her father, 19 year old university-educated Songlian is left destitute. She marries wealthy Master Chen, becoming his fourth and youngest wife. Upon arriving at his palatial estate, she is greeted with a massage, and her private room is decorated with brightly lit, red paper lanterns preceding a visit from her new husband.
Songlian soon discovers that this treatment is not regular. Every evening, the four wives (Yuru, Zhouyun, Meishan and Songlian herself) are made to stand before their doors in their shared courtyard while their husband decides who he will sleep with that night, announced by the placing of the eponymous red lantern in her doorway. That woman alone receives regal treatment, while the others are left alone. Trapped in the largely empty but claustrophobic estate, the four wives are locked in a constant power struggle for Chen's attention.
The film is an adaption of the 1990 novel Wives and Concubines, by Su Tong. It was temporarily Banned in China, until the film gained international praise and was shown to have a positive impact on tourism. The film was later adapted into a ballet.
This Film Provides Examples of:
- Banned in China
- Beware the Nice Ones: Zhuoyan has the face of the Buddha and the heart of a scorpion.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The Second Wife is probably one of the most triumphant examples of this.
- Black and Gray Morality: Beyond the two very young children, there are almost no innocent characters. The cold-hearted protagonist and her fellow wives scheme until they destroy each other. The servants, who seem pathetic in their adoration of the noble Chen family, take a sudden turn into Nightmare Fuel when Songlian discovers how seriously they take the old family traditions...
- Building of Adventure: The film takes place almost entirely within the wives' rooms and the courtyard of the walled estate.
- Composite Character: There are three wives in the ballet instead of four and each take elements from at least two of the original four. The third wife is a combination of Songlian and Meishan, the second wife is a combination of Zhuoyun and Songlian, and the first wife is mostly like Yuru with hints of Zhuoyun.
- Costume Porn: The fine textiles of the wives especially stand out against the dull beige brick of the estate.
- Downer Ending
- Environmental Symbolism: The film starts in Summer and reaches its emotional climax in Winter.
- The Faceless: Master Chen's face is never seen clearly except for at a distance.
- Foreshadowing: Early on, Songlian finds a locked building with an abandoned pair of woman's slippers. This is where Meishan is taken to be excuted later.
- Good Old Ways: "The Chen family's customs go back many generations. It is important that you obey them."
- Ice Queen: Songlian
- Karma Houdini: Zhuoyun
- Law of Inverse Fertility
- May-December Romance
- No Hero to His Valet: Songlian is cold to her servant Yan'er from the beginning, and Yan'er wastes no time in ratting her out once she gets the chance.
- No Periods, Period: Averted.
- Old Retainer
- Peking Opera
- Pretty in Mink
- Sanity Slippage
- Scenery Porn