Starring: Gong Li, He Saifei, Cao Cuifen
Director: Zhang Yimou
Running Time: 125 mins
Raise The Red Lantern is a Chinese film about a poor 19 year old woman who marries into a rich family as the master’s fourth mistress in 1920s China. As she moves into the family complex, she must learn to live with the strict rules and customs, as well as the other three mistresses.
This film is absolutely brilliant. Apart from being one of Zhang Yimou’s most beautiful and elegant productions, it’s an intensely exciting and intriguing story of backstabbing machinations between a group of women all aiming for the same social status. In that, it features some incredibly dark and frank sequences to show the lengths that people will go to in this sort of situation, but it’s arguably the most fascinating political-style film I’ve ever seen.
The story may lead you to believe that this film is all about a love triangle (or quadrilateral). Now, whilst that is technically the case, as we watch various women all trying to get one over each other in order to be the one that gets the wealthy man, the film is far more about their own internal conflict, and next to nothing about romance at all.
As a result, however, the film takes an exceptionally candid look at how far the characters go within their scheming plots and ambitions, and it really makes for a hugely exciting and at times even heavy-going watch.
If there’s one reason that the story is often as intense as it is, it’s thanks to the performances. In the lead role is Gong Li, who gives as terrifyingly steely and strong a performance as always, making Songlian, the young fourth mistress, a clearly determined presence and a force to be reckoned with. However, what Gong Li also does brilliantly is bring a real sense of vulnerability and immaturity to her character.
Whilst she’s tough on the outside, Gong always makes it clear that Songlian isn’t the perfect cunning and ruthless mover that she aims to be, and that makes the character an absolutely fascinating prospect throughout, because it’s not always certain that she’s going to get her way.
Alongside her are two other excellent performances that really go a long way to making the intensity of the film’s story so powerful. He Saifei and Cao Cuifen, playing the third and second mistresses respectively, are instrumental in complementing Gong’s Songlian, as their incredibly contrasting personas and methods of going about living within this often intense environment give the film a palpable sense of political drama. It may not be set in government, and the characters may just be humble housewives, but thanks to the intensity and power of the central performances, this film has more intrigue than so many big political stories manage to pull off.
Now, whilst the intensity, unpredictability and drama of Raise The Red Lantern was what impressed me most, I can’t go without forgetting what a visually beautiful film this is. Zhang Yimou has always managed to portray early 20th Century China in a truly vibrant and elegant way, even while bringing across somewhat more brutal and dark stories, but this is surely the greatest feast for the eyes.
Using potent visual symbolism throughout that takes its form in a wide variety of colours, objects and even camera angles, the film looks like a painting at every moment. In tandem with cinematographer Zhao Fei, Zhang gives this film a visual elegance like few others, all the while managing to keep a slow-moving and heavy-going story utterly enthralling at every moment.
Overall, I absolutely loved Raise The Red Lantern. Its intense portrayal of Machiavellian-style political machinations within the setting of a love triangle is absolutely brilliant, and makes for a hugely exciting watch throughout, furthered by its powerful central performances, whilst its direction by Zhang Yimou is both visually beautiful and incredibly effective in deepening the story, which is why I’m giving this film a lucky 8.8.