The dust shaken off a lamp cover; a black burn mark—a lesion, really—on a thin, flat bed of snow; a water basin; a warbly Victrola; a blood stain on a white garment. And Gong Li. These are the stars of Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern. On pain of death, I couldn’t tell you which one is most beautiful.
In Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô) speaks of simple pottery pieces being transformed by an elegant setting. Well, Zhang sets a mean table. And yet, it’s not Mizoguchi but his contemporary, Yasujirô Ozu, whose style seems to haunt this film. Raise the Red Lantern is arguably the most economical and rigorous adherent to Ozu’s unwritten storytelling laws not made by Ozu himself. The camera almost never moves, but virtually every shot packs dynamite. How does he do it? (And when, with his recent rash of wire-fu national fables, mediocre comedies and arthouse schmaltz, will he go back to doing it?)
In Red Lantern, Zhang simply tells a story itching with melodrama and socio-historical resonance in as sober and still a voice as he can muster. Listen to Jeffrey Wright recount a violent crime of passion in the HBO film adaptation of Lackawanna Blues. His character committed the crime, but his speaking voice sounds like Norbit on antidepressants. His nerdy composure makes the acts he describes feel even bloodier, more unruly and desperate. That’s how Raise the Red Lantern does it, only with simple gestures and ordinary (aristocratic Chinese) household objects.
In the very first shot, Red Lantern introduces a young woman, Songlian, who clearly doesn’t prefer to bow or bite her tongue. Not that she runs around sassing and spitting. Zhang just gives us a close-up of Gong Li’s sullen doll face fighting tears in reaction to a shattering compromise: Forced to drop out of college after her father’s death (an orphan at 19), she agrees to become a rich man’s concubine. The year is 1920 (!). It wouldn’t be any more uncomfortable watching this robust, modern young woman quietly consent to sexual slavery if she were agreeing to her own female circumcision or execution. Because she doesn’t scream or run, instead grimly choosing to shoulder the pain, an air of claustrophobia sets in right away.
Of course, the whole point of Raise the Red Lantern is that Songlian’s choice is tantamount to suicide. Her stay in the rich “Master’s” (Jingwu Ma) palace doesn’t disillusion her; she’s already aware of all the horrors to come in that brilliant first shot (a masterpiece of exposition that relates the equivalent of a first act in one centered close-up). Songlian even says that hers is a “woman’s fate.” Zhang’s camera sustains the claustrophobia in a series of static compositions that make the jutting palace edifices greeting Songlian’s arrival feel like a deadly gauntlet. Each cut from terrifyingly symmetrical stock-still master shot to terrifyingly symmetrical stock-still master shot shrieks in protest.
Once Songlian settles into the palace, Zhang’s paramount concern is visual harmony between decor, props and costumes. Nothing is out of place or off balance. The immaculate frame frees Zhang to pinpoint ideal moments for Songlian’s emotions to disturb the proceedings. Usually, this means shoving or kicking something—a plate, a basin, a chair. But the most jarring disruption is the most fluid: After a series of small betrayals by her fellow concubines and “The Master” the camera gently eases into an off-center medium close-up that pools all of Songlian’s accumulated alienation and resentment into the negative space howling at her back.
The titular lantern lighting ritual happens in the house and courtyard of whichever wife “The Master” (whose face we only occasionally glimpse) chooses to bed down with on a particular night. It’s an absurd spectacle that the women nevertheless understand as an indicator of their worth. As in Flavor of Love, they vie for the master’s affection only because it affords freedom and material comfort. It ain’t love, but it’s as good as it gets. And the lanterns’ warmth (more a velvety orange than red) is as straightforward as metaphors get; Zhang and cinematographers Lun Yang and Fei Zhao extend it with contrasting overcast, magic hour and nighttime color temperatures on the palace grounds.
Zhang also lets natural sounds of daily palace routines give us the real lowdown. When servants blow into long tubes that extinguish the lanterns, they might as well be methodically firing pistols into the backs of innocent skulls. Mallets sound like maracas when used to give the favored wife-of-the-day a vigorous foot massage, and when Zhang cuts to Songlian’s expression melting with pleasure, her sexual longing chimes in with all her other frustrations. Zhang uses these elaborate rites to create rhyming patterns that, when gently skewed the second or third time around, reveal a bracing truth—or at least a juicy plot point.
Songlian’s carrying all of feudal China’s crimes against women on her back inevitably breaks it, but not before her rage gets some of her sisters in the struggle killed, and only after she seizes an opportunity for revenge by using this fading society’s hysterical superstitions against it. Zhang closes with the film’s first overtly lyrical use of camera motion, a slow dolly that had me stomping my feet to Chinese opera music like it was Dead Prez. Then, a symmetrizing final close-up that fades to black on Gong Li’s haunted monument of a face. Then Zhang stitches on an unnecessary coda that over-explains and stylizes in the lazy, heavy-handed manner he had resisted up to this point. Trust, Raise the Red Lantern is still a sturdy classic worth seeing in the vibrant new 35mm print now screening through Thursday, March 15 at Film Forum, but you can grab your coat at that perfect fadeout. Closing on that note, it’s one of the most beautiful indictments of a society’s character ever put on film.