Raise The Red Lantern is a 1991 Chinese film directed by Zhang Yimou (he also directed two wuxia films that I really enjoyed: Hero and House of Flying Daggers) and starring Gong Li. The film was an adaption of a novel by Su Tong entitled Wives and Concubines. The film is set in 1920s China and centers around the story of a young woman named Songlian who leaves her home to become the “Fourth Mistress” by marrying into the wealthy Chen family. The film was very well received upon release and been included on numerous “best of” lists through the years. The film also won a number of ” Best Foreign Language Film” awards and was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language Film” but did not win. So does this Chinese drama deserve to be counted among the all time greats and wear the label classic?
Should this film be considered a classic? I think this Chinese period drama should definitely be a classic. I enjoyed it far more than the Hong Kong drama In The Mood for Love that was released in 2000 and is also on this list. One of the things I enjoyed the most about this film was beautiful camera work. Zhang utilizes static shots for the majority of the film. This means that no artificial drama could be created through the use of the much maligned “shaky cam” that is so popular in modern movies. The actors, their delivery, and their movements are what solely sell the drama. The score is also a perfect fit. It is minimal but very effective when employed and is used to clue us in to major happenings in the plot. This film seems to be an exercise in minimalism that truly puts the focus on the actors in front of the camera and that is a very good thing. This deliberate use of static shots and minimal music makes one of the final scenes where the camera goes handheld all the more effective because it so unexpected. This is definitely one to see if you enjoy foreign films and period dramas.
Would I own this film? Probably not. While I enjoyed it and would definitely consider it one of the classics, it did not have a story that I feel the need to revisit. It certainly was not a bad story. In fact, I thought it was a very compelling and very emotional story that was well told. It is certainly a film that will stick with me. Maybe that is why I don’t see the need to own it. It was memorable enough that I don’t feel the need to revisit it.
Check out this opening scene from the film that perfectly illustrates the static camera I mentioned above.