March 20, 1992
Review/Film; Dissension in the Ranks of a Household’s 4 Wives
By Janet Maslin, New York Times
Songlian (Gong Li), the college-educated beauty who arrives at a feudal manor house at the outset of
Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern,” insists on carrying her own suitcase, which is virtually the
last act of independence she will be permitted during the course of the story. Forced by her stepmother
into what is essentially the life of a concubine, Songlian has agreed to become the fourth wife of a
feudal patriarch, a man so regal that each of his wives presides over her own separate home.
Mr. Zhang, while acknowledging this man’s importance, deliberately ignores him. “Raise the Red Lantern,”
a beautifully crafted and richly detailed feat of consciousness-raising and a serious drama with the
verve of a good soap opera,is strictly about the women who manage to live under this arrangement.
Ruled by elaborate rituals, the wives spend their days waiting to be chosen for the night by their
mutual husband, whose ways of signaling his choice include assigning 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.
As in his earlier “Ju Dou” (which, like this film, was an Oscar nominee for best foreign film), Mr. Zhang
works with an exquisite simplicity that broadens the universality of his work. Steeped as it is in the
specifics of privileged life in 1920’s China, “Raise the Red Lantern” is also filled with instantly familiar
figures, from the gloriously malicious and spoiled wife No. 3 (He Caifei), a former opera singer who manages
to play Camille whenever her husband visits his new bride, to the resentful maid (Kong Lin) who proves
extremely treacherous to her new mistress.
The film, very knowing about its characters’ particular personalities and the ways they intersect, even
becomes quietly comic when Mr. Zhang stages dinner scenes among the four wives, each of whom has a maid
standing in silent attendance. Progressively younger and more beautiful, the wives are united in quiet
resentment of the man they call “the master.” Yet the situation demands that each one try her best to win
his approval. From the plain, motherly wife No. 1 to the trophy types who are the most recent additions,
these women reveal a lot about the man who married them, while also providing a fairly hellish vision of
life without the option of divorce. Songlian, who initially views the wives’ intrigue with detachment,
eventually learns to assess her rivals’ abilities and fight fire with fire.
Directing in a quiet, observant style, Mr. Zhang begins the film — which opens today at the Lincoln Plaza
Cinemas — by introducing Songlian to the household and its customs. The title ritual, like that of the foot
massage, is meant to signal the husband’s nightly sexual predilection, and is performed with elaborate fanfare.
On the night she arrives, the passageway to Songlian’s house is lined with red lanterns as her new husband tells
her “I like it bright and formal.” The next morning, Songlian gazes in the mirror with a look of pure disgust
Subtly exploring the politics of power and control, “Raise the Red Lantern” traces Songlian’s growing canniness
once she becomes accustomed to the strictures governing her new life. It eventually becomes a tale of treachery
in some quarters and solidarity in others, with a narrative that yields several surprising shifts of character.
Songlian learns, among other things, not to trust her first impressions, and not to lose track of who her real
Gong Li, also the star of “Ju Dou” and Mr. Zhang’s “Red Sorghum,” is a stunningly handsome actress of strong,
stately bearing. In this role, she reveals unexpected sharpness as well as great depths of dignity and sorrow.
Also fine are Ms. Cao as the wife eventually revealed to have “a Buddha’s face and a scorpion’s heart,” and
Ms. Kong as the disloyal maid whose lot is ultimately even more pitiable than her mistress’s. Ms. He, as the
opera singer who sets the film’s tragic ending in motion, cogently demonstrates the film’s attitudes about
divisiveness, solidarity and oppression.
“Raise the Red Lantern,” based on a novel called “Wives and Concubines” by Su Tong, is as visually striking as
it is dramatically effective. Mr. Zhang makes evocative use of clear, simple colors, from the lanterns themselves
to the blue of the house’s rooftops at twilight. And he captures a detailed visual sense of the rituals governing
Songlian’s new life. (Ceremonial black lantern covers are employed when one of the wives commits a shameful
transgression.) The house itself, hauntingly photographed, becomes a perfect visual metaphor for Songlian’s plight. Vast, rambling and strangely empty, it has developed the look of a prison by the film’s closing moments.