Raise The Red Lantern

Zhang Yimou, China/Hong Kong 1992, 125 minutes

In China's Shanxi Province a student, Songlian (Gong Li), relinquishes her place at university to become the fourth wife of a wealthy land owner, in order to keep her own family out of poverty. She takes up her position in her new husband's mansion and is soon caught up in a battle to assert her social standing in the household, especially with the third wife, a bitchy, faded opera singer.

Zhang's first film without his usual co-director Yang Fengliang makes extremely effective use of its setting, a grim forbidding 18th century fortress. Like the textile mill in Ju Dou and the wine press in Red Sorghum the location is a vital element in the drama and the mansion's icy oppression is perfect for a story about the suffocation of desire; Zhang makes sure the viewer is never unaware of the stifling effect the house has on the household it contains.

Another interesting feature is Zhang's use of off-screen space. The patriarch of the family only ever appears at the edge of the frame or completely out of it, which gives him a air of sinister menace; and many of the film's violent retributions occur off-screen. One down-side of this is that Gong Li is in almost every shot and she does tend to overwhelm the film.

Nevertheless this is a beautifully photograhed, stunningly acted drama complete with plot and counter-plot and passionate reprisals. Unsurprisingly perhaps, since most films which show a glimmer of creativity fall foul of the authorities, Raise The Red lantern is still banned in its native country.

"Story is gripping and visual textures are extraordinary, Li's presence gives the film a constant erotic charge" - Variety

Review by Stephen Cox
Taken from EUFS Programme 1996-97