Thursday, 7 February 2013

Holiday Special -- Chinese New Year

Continuing the holiday retrospectives we turn our attention to the Chinese New Year, and I thought about writing a post about a great Chinese film. Unfortunately, this is not a area of my expertise. So, I've brought in a guest writer for this post: from The Cinema Touch, Julien Faddoul.

Raise the Red Lantern

Julien Faddoul

Of all the prominent and praised directors to emerge from the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers who began making films after the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Yimou was their champion. After decades of little-to-no cinematographic information on China, its people or its culture, the world was blessed with a number of luminous, non-propagandist films, delivered by a group artists in the 1980s (most of which graduated from the Beijing Film Academy, class of 1982). Films filled to the brim with bold integrity, aesthetic ingenuity, a searing beauty, an overwhelming effervescence and, for the most part, a deep, deep sadness.

Of all these pictures the best of them is Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Zhang Yimou’s first two features Red Sorghum (1987) and Ju Dou (1990) are great films in their own right, but his said third film is his masterwork. He entered the film industry as a cinematographer and actor. Red Sorghum did two major things for him: it established Zhang Yimou as a director internationally and it showcased his early mediative manner for employing strong female protagonists. The film also marked the beginning of a personal and professional relationship with actress Gong Li that would last through seven films. Zhang Yimou experienced harsh political hardships with Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern when Chinese censors banned both films. After performing well internationally, and receiving Academy Award nominations, the films were reinstated by the Chinese government.

Set in the 1920s, Songlian (Gong Li), the college-educated beauty who arrives at a feudal mansion at the beginning of Raise the Red Lantern, requests that she lug her own luggage, which is practically the final turn of liberation she will be allowed throughout the course of the film. Obligated by her stepmother into what is basically the existence of a concubine, Songlian has settled to become the fourth wife of a feudal patriarch, a man so imperial that each of his wives supervises over her own isolated home. While acknowledging the man’s presence, Zhang Yimou then spends the rest of the film blatantly ignoring him, for this story is about women. Four women. Reined by intricate sacraments, the wives spend their time patiently waiting (or not) to be plucked for the night by their mutual husband, whose ways of deciding include allocating a special foot massage to the woman he likes best. "If you can manage to have a foot massage every day, you'll soon be running this household," wife No. 2 (Cao Cuifeng) tells the new arrival.

For the rest of its running time (128 minutes), Raise the Red Lantern takes on the episodic nature of a great Chinese novel, or an extravagant American soap-opera. It is as slow, quiet, and ritualized as the life it depicts. And needless to say, it ends in tragedy. Most of the movie unfolds in static long shots that beautifully cover so much emotional ground. On the scarce instances when the director moves in for the close-up, there's not much action, only twinkles of countenance dashing athwart the actresses' faces. Yet those faces hold us with great power, believe me.

Throughout his career Zhang Yimou has always insisted that “…the objective of any form of art is not political…I am not interested in politics”.  This is a complex ballet of words, for Raise the Red Lantern is one of the greatest movies ever made about the politics of power and control. It traces Songlian's mounting shrewdness once she becomes comfortable to the censures overriding her fresh life. It ultimately develops into an account of deceitfulness and treachery in some quarters and solidarity in others, with a narrative that harvests numerous shocking swings of character and mood. Songlian learns, among other things, never to believe her first impressions, and not to lose sight of who her enemies are. In a way, the film is about having enemies and the testimony that Zhang Yimou is telling us is that most of us don’t like to admit we have enemies or people who dislike us intensely, but we all have them, every single one of us, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The final moments of the film are some of the most beautiful and haunting as any I have witnessed and Gong Li’s performance is the most gorgeous vision of tragic wretchedness ever captured on film.

Raise the Red Lantern is based on a novel called Wives and Concubines by Su Tong. It is a cool study of sexual irrationality. It depicts a world where betrayal is the best possible action and transgressing is the worst. It is maddening, flamboyant, lush, intelligent and always fascinating. It also possesses a word that I use with great, great care: integrity. It is great film by a great filmmaker. See it.

You can see more of Mr. Faddoul's work at or on twitter @JulienFaddoul 

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