Recalling Raise the Red Lantern by Zhang Yimou, this year’s recipient of Jaeger-LeCoultre award at Venice

Baradwaj Rangan

Sep 03, 2018 15:15:42 IST

This year, Chinese director Zhang Yimou will receive the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker award at the Venice Film Festival. This is the recognition (dedicated to personalities who have made a significant contribution to contemporary cinema) that went to Mani Ratnam in 2010, and other recipients include luminaries like Takeshi Kitano, Abbas Kiarostami, Agnès Varda, Al Pacino, Spike Lee, Ettore Scola and Brian De Palma. Zhang’s new film, Ying (Shadow), will be shown Out of Competition. Variety reports that the plot is set in the Three Kingdoms era (pegged at 220-280 AD; the name comes from the division of China into the states of Wei, Shu and Wu), and that the film is visualised in the style of a Chinese ink brush painting.

Neither the period nor the style is surprising, for Zhang is known for historical settings (his last film, The Great Wall, released in 2016, was set in medieval China), and he is known for the painterliness of his frames. (Recall the astonishingly colour-coded Hero, or the gorgeous House of Flying Daggers, of which Roger Ebert wrote: “There are interiors of ornate elaborate richness, costumes of bizarre beauty, landscapes of mountain ranges and meadows, fields of snow, banks of autumn leaves and a bamboo grove that functions like a kinetic art installation.”) But to my mind, as the director’s canvases have expanded (along with the budgets; The Great Wall cost $150 million, and The Flowers of War, from 2011, cost $94 million), the intimacy in his storytelling has taken a backseat.

It’s perhaps the nature of the beast: huge martial-arts (or other) spectacles are about intrigue and set pieces rather than piercing character development, and the comparison to Zhang’s early dramas is probably unfair. Still, to watch the latter films today – many of them starring actress/muse Gong Li (she made her acting debut in his first film, Red Sorghum, 1988) – is to realise how painterliness and psychology can coexist in exquisite harmony. Let’s look at Raise the Red Lantern (1991), which is based on Su Tong’s novella Wives and Concubines. The protagonist (Lotus in the book; Songlian in the movie) starts out from a position of strength. She is a simple, working-class girl, and when her father commits suicide, “she stood beside that sink [where her father had slashed his wrists] washing and combing her hair out over and over again. It was her way of calmly planning for her future.”

This scene is not present in the film, which finds a more visual way to demonstrate the protagonist’s strength. Songlian, in a close-up, is at the centre of the frame through the entire conversation. “Mother, stop!” are her first words. (We later learn it’s her stepmother.) “You’ve been talking for three days. I’ve thought it over. Alright, I’ll get married.” The mother, who’s never shown on screen, says, “Good! To what sort of man?” Songlian, her eyes slowing welling up (though her voice is unwavering), replies, “What sort of man? Is it up to me? You always speak of money. Why not marry a rich man?” The mother says, “Marry a rich man and you’ll only be his concubine.” Songlian replies, “Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that a woman's fate?” The voice finally cracks. The tears slowly fall.

And her strength begins to crumble. At the age of nineteen, Songlian becomes the fourth concubine of fifty-something Chen Zuoqian. The film’s title refers to the family custom of lighting red lanterns outside the house of the “mistress” the master will spend the night with. (She also gets a foot massage.) The oldest mistress, in her 40s, has given up. She has produced a male heir. Her job is done. The third mistress, an opera singer, is resentful of Songlian. Only the second mistress, all sweetness and concern, seems to understand. She tells Songlian, “With a new wife as young and pretty as you, I’m afraid I won’t be enjoying [the red lanterns and foot massages] for some time. But don’t underestimate the importance of this custom. If you can manage to have a foot massage every day, you’ll soon be running this household.”

In other words, it’s a patriarchal world that exploits a woman’s weakness for love. (What else is there?) Even the foot massage is administered for a reason. The master tells Songlian, “A woman’s feet are very important. When they’re comfortable, she is healthier, and better able to serve her man.” The stage is thus set for a battle of the wives, and the escalating one-upmanship turns into a great tragedy. The third mistress eventually warms up to Songlian and tells a story about the prevailing competiveness: “We both became pregnant about the same time... When I was three months along, she slipped some medicine into my food. I was lucky and didn’t have a miscarriage. When we were due, she wanted to have her baby first and ordered expensive injections to speed up the delivery... In the end, I was lucky and had my boy... She only had a cheap little girl.” You don’t know whether to feel sorry for her or horrified at the adjectives she picks for the rival’s girl child.

But all this is psychology. What about the painterliness? It’s there in the blood-red bedrooms of the lucky mistress, which are contrasted with the snow-crusted architecture outside. Rarely has a film so beautifully acquainted the viewer with its geography – by the end, we know the ins and outs, the ups and downs of the palace. We especially know how confined the women are. After that talk with her mother, Songlian sets out on foot to the faraway palace. A servant, there, is mortified. “We sent the bridal sedan for you,” he says, “Didn’t it arrive?” Songlian simply says, “I walked here myself.” In the novella, she is “carried into the Chen family garden” by four rustic sedan bearers. Why the change in the film? I think it’s because Songlian will never step into the outside world again. After she enters the palace, even the camera (see 0.40 onwards in the clip above) hems her in. The corridor is open to the sky, but the framing is low, and the three walls (plus the invisible fourth wall of the screen) lock Songlian in. The palace becomes her prison.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

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Updated Date: Sep 03, 2018 15:15:42 IST