Raise the Red Lantern

Completing a loose trilogy that began with Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, Zhang Yimou’s grim adaptation of a novel by Su Tong once again stars Gong Li as a young woman who marries a much older man, and once again tells a story that explicitly critiques Chinese feudalism and indirectly critiques contemporary China. This time, however, the style is quite different (despite another key use of the color red) and the vision is much bleaker. The heroine, a less sympathetic figure than her predecessors, is a university student in the 1920s who becomes the fourth and youngest wife of a powerful man in northern China after her stepmother can no longer afford to pay for her education. She quickly becomes involved in the various intrigues and rivalries between wives that rule her husband’s world and family tradition: each wife has her own house and courtyard, and whoever the husband chooses to sleep with on a given night receives a foot massage, several lighted red lanterns, and the right to select the menu for the following day. The film confines us throughout to this claustrophobic universe of boxes within boxes, where wives and female servants virtually devote their lives to scheming against one another; the action is filmed mainly in frontal long shots. Zhang confirms his mastery and artistry here in many ways, some of them relatively new (such as his striking sound track) though the cold, remote, and stifling world he presents here doesn’t offer much of an emotional release (1991). Nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, March 27 through April 2)

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