Raise the Red Lantern was banned in China upon it’s release. This is unsurprising considering China’s sensor happy history, but for such a seminal film about China’s history it’s nonetheless intriguing. It is on Empire’s 2010 list of 100 Best World Cinema films. It’s on the 1001 films to see before you die list. I had never, ever seen a Chinese film before and it was pretty obvious that this film had to be my first.
Raise the Red Lantern follows 19-year-old Songlian. In the fashion of good scriptwriting, the film ‘starts when the drama happens and leaves before it’s over.’ Immediately, the film begins with the above shot of Songlian. Stating that she has no choice but to be a rich man’s Concubine (basically a wife in Chinese terms, at the beck and call of a rich Chinese man with great heritage and to bear his sons), to which she is obviously distressed with. At this stage, you imagine that the film will take the path that many British period dramas do in regards to arranged marriages.
That is, the suppression of women comes into question when a well-to-do woman refuses to marry. When a woman gets pregnant out of wedlock and wants to keep the baby, and with daughters who are unable to inherit from their fathers but fight the law anyway and other such scandalous occurrences. I fully expected Songlian to become a Concubine but in some way use her strength and intelligence to make a better life for herself. That’s not exactly what happens.
The film is very methodical, very quiet and repetitive. The shots are often at a distance. Flat, face on to the characters and not at all tilted. They are usually wide shots. Taking in the whole picture and staying there. Songlian is the fourth wife of a wealthy Lord and lives in her own little house on his estate just as the other three wives live in their own little houses. Basically, the little houses are just a bedroom because that’s all they need. Charming.
There is a clear tension between the four of them. Not least when it comes to sundown and there’s a queer little ceremony that announces to the entire household which wife the Lord will be sleeping with that night. At which point, the red lanterns that drape the house in light are lit so the Lord can enjoy the wife he has chosen as if the room was ablaze. Very odd. And every single little daily routine that happens is a strong tradition. Chosen wife gets to choose food for everyone’s breakfast… Wives cannot play flutes… Wives must have their feet massaged if the Master is staying with them that night. And countless, countless others.
I will say that despite it’s slow pace, despite the storyline taking place between so few characters and the one setting, I cannot remember being so hooked to a film so early on. 7 minutes, I think, was how long it took to become completely fixated. The character of Songlian was extremely complex. Much more complex than my first impressions, which made her difficult to route for. You thought she was this intelligent woman (the most intelligent of the wives, having been at University for all of 6 months) and she seemed to have a good role model in her late father. But really, who could stay motivated and hopeful in a place like this?
The wives are occupied by no one but themselves. Everyone is scheming against everyone and you can trust no one. As the seasons pass on the screen, absolutely nothing changes. The monotony of the day-to-day rituals, the loneliness, the rejection of your own husband sleeping with other women… This sort of life is not for the women who know better, like Songlian. My usual optimism was overcome when I realised that Songlian will not escape her situation with her life or her senses intact. It was never going to happen.
The main reason I found the film so interesting actually something learned after watching the film. With the lack of electricity, the fact religion was still evident and the traditional garb I wondered which era the film was set. 1750? Early 1800? It was actually 1920s. Just over 20 years before the Concubine traditions were outlawed. Looking back over the film, I notice the traditions starting to break down and the believers in the film’s story clinging to the seems to stop them from splitting. The traditions are fiercely enforced by the rich, the people they advantage the most. What was China’s reason for banning the film? To brush the whole sordid era under the rug? Or perhaps, unlike films set World War II, because the era in question really wasn’t that long ago and they’re not quite ready to admit the past just yet.
Have you ever seen Raise the Red Lantern? Did you like it as much as I did?