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Red Lantern adeptly heightens concern for women

Raise the Red Lantern
Directed by Zhang Yimou.
Written by Ni Zhen.
Starring Gong Li and Ma Jingwu.
At the Coolidge Corner Theater.

By Danny Su
Staff Reporter

For the second straight year, director Zhang Yimou's latest film was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film. As with Zhang's Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern tells a compelling and sorrowful story of a young women whose life is destined to be ruined in a male-dominated society. Like Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern is visually spectacular and morally depressing. Although confined to only one major setting, Yimou is able to capture the audience's attention through clever character manipulations. By the film's end, the audience is so depressed about the outcome and so sympathetic toward the characters that they sincerely wish that such a terrible fate will never be inflicted on any other woman.

Set in Northern China in the 1920's, Songlian (Gong Li) quits college after her father has passed away and becomes Zuoquian Chen's (Ma Jingwu) fourth wife. When Songlian, who chooses to walk from her house to Chen's house instead of riding in the wedding carriage, arrives at Chen's house, there is no sign of a celebration, an omen of things to come. Bound by tradition and inflamed with jealousy, none of the three wives come out to greet the new bride. An old housekeeper welcomes and acknowledges the arrival of Songlian, and he guides her to her new room through the house's elaborate labyrinthine structure. To her surprise, in the long walk from the front door to her room, she doesn't see a single person. The lack of human presence couples with the absence of a wedding reception to create an impersonal atmosphere that prevails throughout the film and makes one really wonder if this is an everyday occurrence.

Every evening, a red lantern is lit in front of the courtyard of the wife Chen chooses to sleep with. Contrary to its traditional symbolism, red is anything but festive in this movie. There is no love among the wives, only hatred. And the relationship between Chen and his wives is purely sexual. Rather than helping each other out and raising their status within the family, the wives are constantly fighting among themselves to win favors from Chen. On Songlian's wedding night, Meishan (He Caifei), the third wife, pretends to be sick and calls Chen away for the night. And whenever Chen spends the night with Songlian, Meishan wakes them up by singing opera on the roof early in the morning. Although Meishan outwardly displays her dislike of Songlian, she does not plot against her. On the other hand, second wife Zhuoyun (Cao Cuifeng) displays affection for Songlian, but secretly plots to destroy her. According to Meishan, Zhuoyun has a Buddha's face and a scorpion's heart. Even Yan'er (Kong Lin), Songlian's servant, hates her because she wishes to become Chen's mistress someday.

Like Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern embodies numerous messages that Yimou attempts to convey to the Chinese people. He has been criticized in the past by his own people for showing the dark side of China to foreigners. But Yimou makes movies for his people, not foreigners. It is unfortunate that neither government on either side of the Taiwan Straits will permit the showing of his films. By exhibiting the plight of Chinese women, Yimou not only wants people to become aware of the situation but to make an attempt to raise the social status of women.

Meishan was a prominent opera singer before she married Chen. Then her life became miserable, and she is eventually killed by Chen when her affair with the family doctor is discovered by Zhuoyun. She sacrifices her career and ends up with nothing.

Songlian is an educated college student before she enters the Chen family. Then everything goes wrong for her. She attempts to gain prominence in the family by faking pregnancy. When her scheme is uncovered by Yan'er, she is humiliated and falls out of favor. Chen marries a fifth wife a year after he marries her. Needless to say, Songlian wastes her education and is no better off than Meishan by the end.

First wife Yuru (Shuyuan Jin) is old and does nothing to mediate the feud among the other wives. The split in the house is the same one that has plagued China over the last century. Instead of defending against a common enemy, these women are busy killing each other.

Yimou shows us that Songlian and Meishan are unfortunate victims of the feudal society. They are powerless against traditions that have been around for thousands of years. Nobody should go through what they do. The movie successfully transmits their sufferings into the audience's souls. The characters capture not only the audience's sympathies, but also their hearts.