Local Color
Michael Koresky on Raise the Red Lantern

Long before I knew anything about China’s “Fifth Generation” of filmmakers, or learned that generations of films from that country were either responses to or products of something called the Cultural Revolution, or realized that the filmmaker Zhang Yimou had become an international representative for his country’s complicated 20th-century historical tangles, or read about the 21st-century controversies that had forever altered ideological perceptions of him, Raise the Red Lantern swept across my eye-line with the force of a hurricane.

When Zhang Yimou’s 1991 film became a part of my vision, I was twelve or maybe thirteen, but certainly no older. I was in the midst of devouring practically every VHS my local libraries had to offer. Not knowing enough to doubt the extreme limits of my gaze, relying on my perceived worldliness as an adventurous young movie-watcher, I was indulging in private reveries that manifested as certitudes: I was pretty sure that Persona reflected something innately austere and frightening about the Scandinavian spirit; that Fellini’s “buffets of life” were quintessentially Italian, grotty and buoyant; and that Ran had to be the greatest movie I’d ever seen, which meant that Japanese cinema had to be the greatest cinema in the world, never mind that I had seen maybe three films from the entire country at that point. Even next to all the tantalizing films grouped together in that wildly ambitious section simply titled “Foreign,” Zhang Yimou’s film struck me as though it promised something majestically different. There is extremity to this belief. The beauty of movies is also their danger, they draw a world more vivid than the one we live in, but their ability to record and represent reality makes them more than just dreams.

And so it would go with Raise the Red Lantern, which was the first film I had seen from China—mainland or otherwise—and which seemed emotionally legible despite, or perhaps because of, the foreignness of its subject matter, presentation, and tone. But still it connected to the familiar in one crucial way: here was a film about the “lives of women.” Having been indulging in a steady diet of foreign cinema that focused on female characters, their mistreatment within or management despite unforgiving social strictures, films like Cries and Whispers and Nights of Cabiria, I was instantly compelled by Zhang’s first shot, a minute-and-a-half close-up of Gong Li looking directly to camera while she talks to an older woman off-screen. The young woman says that she desires to marry rich, to which the unseen voice responds with a warning that she will be nothing more than a man’s property. “Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that woman’s fate?” she insists, and the shot ends with a single tear rolling down her cheek.

Gong Li, as nineteen-year-old Songlian, registered to me almost instantly as a representation of everything I wasn’t seeing along my more traditional cinematic routes. Even in this first shot, she communicates so much of how her character will be defined: she’s defiant yet suppliant, she’s strong yet melancholy, she’s in control of her life choices, yet trapped by a larger social superstructure that makes those choices essentially moot. Instinctually, I felt that Songlian was standing in for something greater—she represented women generally, but even more broadly, she was that figure most appealing to the incipient political mind: the individual trapped by the machinations of a particular place and time in history. In this case, that was the Republic of China in the third decade of the twentieth century, the “Warlord Era,” caught between major historical epochs, following the overthrowing of the Qing Dynasty but before the beginning of the Chinese Civil War that would culminate in the Chinese Communist Revolution. War is left off-screen in Zhang’s film; in fact, men largely are as well. We barely see anything at all beyond the walls of the Shanxi Province compound where the film was shot. Zhang remains tightly fixed on the interactions of the four “mistresses” who live in separate quarters in Master Chen’s sprawling home, an enclosed world that seemed to me like a foreboding castle.

Watching it again today, I realize that Zhang Yimou’s film might have worked particularly well for an adolescent viewer because it functions on traditional fairy tale logic. The script by Ni Zhen, based on a novel by Su Tong, adheres to a strict structural format: in addition to the clearly defined hierarchies of the main concubines—called, most often, First, Second, Third, and, in Songlian’s case, Fourth Mistress—the film is divided into four seasons. In addition to its highly appealing story construction, Yimou’s film foregrounds its deployment of color in ways that even a child can get: the title refers to the array of red lanterns that Master Chen places each night outside the chamber of the mistress he has chosen to spend the night with. It’s the rare instance of color driving the narrative. The placement of the lanterns instigates competition amongst the women, who angle for Master Chen’s attention in increasingly cutthroat ways, revealing treachery behind docility, and vulnerability behind strength, all while Master Chen is kept largely off-screen or obscured in the frame so that he becomes a looming figure of unchecked power.

A viewer is unlikely to come away from the film without remarking upon its use of color and composition. Cinematographer Zhao Fei offers up mostly stately, static frames in medium long-shot, drawing your eye to isolated bursts of color; his most memorable image is a recurring high-angle shot of Chen’s compound, the luminescent glow of red against the chill blue of the night sky. Raise the Red Lantern’s use of color became a point of technical interest among mainstream critics and journalists upon its international release in the early nineties, with many articles presumptively reporting, incorrectly, that it had been printed in the rare dye transfer Technicolor process still used occasionally in China since inheriting British equipment in the seventies, presumably because this had been the case with Zhang’s previous film, Ju Dou—a film literally set around the color dyeing trade in rural China.

For all the film’s narrative, structural, and visual accessibility, Raise the Red Lantern strikes me today for its austerity. Its precise schematics might be deceptive cover for the traditional melodramatics that boil over in the second half, yet Zhang’s compositional approach here was nevertheless unusually detached and exacting for a young viewer acclimated to an American vernacular. Its flinty severity likely read to my eyes as “authoritarian,” a vision of China as a country of strict customs and traditions—a line of inherently biased thinking that connects easily with how the West has willfully misunderstood and exoticized the East for centuries.

At the time that I first saw Raise the Red Lantern, my only other frame of reference for cinematic depictions of the country was The Last Emperor, an Oscar-approved, Italian-British-French coproduction in English from an auteur whose name my parents recognized, and which came with the enticing bona fides of being the first Western film approved to shoot in Beijing’s Forbidden City. What Bernardo Bertolucci’s film communicated to a child was strictly in terms of scale: complicated political histories, the trappings of imperial life, the beauty and intimidation of palatial architecture. It’s fairly uncontroversial to say that The Last Emperor was a product made explicitly for Western consumption, a film whose textures and appeal tend almost solely toward the exotic; even if my adolescent self couldn’t define it as such, I recall even being aware on some unspoken level, perhaps by virtue of the language—or the recognizability of Peter O’Toole—that Bertolucci’s film was impressive but somehow inauthentic. By contrast, Raise the Red Lantern, which I viewed for the first time all by my lonesome on a thirteen-inch television screen, was an altogether intimate affair; Bertolucci’s film may have prepared me in some abstract sense for the sight of gabled stone roofs, enclosed palace courts, and cheongsam dresses, but Zhang Yimou’s film situated its remarkable visual elements within the context of what seemed to my unaccustomed Western eyes a vivid reality.

Though Zhang Yimou’s next film, The Story of Qiu Ju, was an indictment of contemporary Chinese bureaucracy, starring Gong Li as a rural peasant seeking justice for a minor incident of violence, his most successful international exports throughout the Nineties—Ju Dou, To Live, Shanghai Triad—were, like Raise the Red Lantern, set in the past. Though Zhang would frequently come up against his country’s censors, leading to temporary bans for several of his films—including Raise but more dramatically and lastingly for To Live, which more directly criticized the Communist government—in the West these films proved popular, critically and commercially, leading to the inevitable positioning of Zhang as some kind of truth ambassador.

The high-profile distribution of Zhang’s films in the West during the first decade of his career—by such American art-house big shots as New Yorker Films, Miramax, The Samuel Goldwyn Company, Sony Pictures Classics, and in Raise the Red Lantern’s case, Orion Classics—somewhat obscured its historically significant context. Other filmmakers of the historic Fifth Generation hadn’t reached international audiences at the same level, although in the wake of Zhang’s success, there would be more distribution deals for his compatriots Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang; two years after Raise the Red Lantern’s premiere, Chen would win the Palme d’Or for his Miramax-released epic Farewell My Concubine, all but cementing Chinese cinema as a significant force in nineties film. Mainstream acknowledgment of the ascendancy of this national cinema in the U.S. rarely made note of its generational or educational aspect, as though politically engaged, complexly wrought, yet narratively accessible Chinese filmmaking had just been laying dormant for the right moment, rather than that technical instruction and formal training had set the groundwork for the cinema of the People’s Republic to flourish.

It was often noted that Zhang, Chen, and Tian were making their films from within a repressive, cloistered regime, but not that they, along with less widely known directors like Li Shaohong, Lü Yue, and Wu Ziniu, were amongst the 150 freshmen accepted into the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, its first incoming class to graduate following the end of the Cultural Revolution. In this school, formerly the site of the Beijing Agricultural Labor University, situated in the rural Zhuxin Village, the filmmakers were collectively learning to hone their craft, defining highly individuated styles and narrative preferences while also working on each other’s projects. Zhang was an acknowledged force from the beginning, even if the generation’s breakthrough film wasn’t his: he served as cinematographer on Chen’s Yellow Earth, the enthusiastic 1985 Hong Kong Film Festival reception of which all but kicked off the movement. Yellow Earth would also set a sort of template for the historical tenor and disposition of many of these films, narratives that convey a sense of authentic, lived experience that are able to somehow express criticism and ambivalence about their country’s nationalist authoritarianism while celebrating a collective spirit of heroism. Zhang’s own breakthrough, Red Sorghum, furthered Yellow Earth’s cinema of indomitable peasantry, and was also set during World War II. While still situated in a pre-Revolutionary past, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern expanded his purview into the realm of folkloric melodrama. With the former banned for what the government perceived as overly sexual content, Zhang began his nineties stretch as both the prime arbiter of contemporary Chinese cinema and its most high-profile rule-breaker.

The parable-like construction of Raise the Red Lantern, as well as its cloistered story and setting, give it the sense of being walled off from the rest of Zhang’s career. It remains perched in its distant tower, cut off from The Story of Qiu Ju and To Live, comparatively realist films he would make with Gong Li in the nineties, as well as the less psychologically reflective, sweeping action spectacles Hero and House of Flying Daggers in the early aughts. These latter films, significant international hits, would be met with both skepticism and extreme criticism from many, who saw them as evidence of Zhang selling out to the West or, worse, trading on troubling ideas about his country’s authoritarian history, with Hero specifically celebrating the Qin dynasty emperor who believed in complete national unification of China, an ideologically dubious stance when one considers China’s more recent history, specifically its relationship to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Zhang’s legacy is now partly defined by this era of his career, which has had the effect of retroactively casting his earlier films in a harsher, or at least more puzzling, light. Raise the Red Lantern, which uses a foregrounded aesthetic palette to foster undeniable visual pleasure amidst a tragic portrait of patriarchal power and entrenched misogyny, increasingly feels like the potent central text in a career known for its tricky-to-parse politics and foregrounded symbolism.

The act of situating Zhang Yimou in his historical context may have overtaken the work of analyzing, reading, and appreciating his films for their individual merits. Having turned our attentions at the turn of the century to masters from Taiwan (Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang), Hong Kong (Wong Kar-wai), and China’s Sixth Generation (Jia Zhangke), the cinephile community seemed to move on from this generation of filmmakers, whose once-upon-a-time surge of popularity gave them the sense of momentary cultural domination. The case of Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien—incidentally an executive producer on Raise the Red Lantern, which had been partly funded by Taiwanese money—makes for a proper contrast. After years of making aesthetically and narratively challenging films about how personal and national histories function both in concert and at odds with one another, Hou’s first attempt at a martial arts spectacle, The Assassin, turned out to be anything but a sap to commercialism, instead abstracting the form into a fragmentary experience.

From the beginning, Zhang has attempted to more cleanly communicate ideology and narrative through color and composition, which surely helps define the contours and emotional legibility of his films for Western viewers, including adolescent New Englanders with VCRs in their bedrooms. That even as a child I felt an indefinable rupture when Zhang Yimou shifts from mostly static framing to a tracking shot into our emotionally devastated heroine at Raise the Red Lantern’s climax says a lot about the expressive, elemental power of his cinema. More than merely a gateway for contemporary and future generations of Chinese film, Raise the Red Lantern was for me a revelation of cinema’s aesthetic and empathetic possibilities. The question that has dogged Zhang Yimou throughout his career remains: who is he making movies for? In my room, that day, it was clearly an audience of one.