Raise the Red Lantern

Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriters: by Su Tong, Ni Zhen

Institute History

  • 1992 Sundance Film Festival


The portrayal of the oppression of women as a metaphor for societal repression as a whole has a long and distinguished history in Asian cinema. From the era of Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi, up through the work of a burgeoning cinematic master like Zhang Yimou, there exists the sometimes-subtle, but still clearly delineated, practice of alluding to the larger social and political world which lies beyond the boundaries of the film frame. Raise the Red Lantern is a fine example of director Yimou’s interest in both Chinese history and contemporary life.

The historical setting here is the 1920s. A beautiful young woman, Songlian, accepts a proposal to become the fourth wife of a somewhat-elderly master of a powerful clan in northern China. The story unfolds over the course of four seasons as the wives variously compete and conspire to gain the favor of their shared husband. Each wife has her own private residence and courtyard within the family compound, so the husband nightly has a red lantern lit outside the home of the wife he intends to honor with his presence, and more red lanterns lit within it. This elaborate ritual only intensifies the wives’ competitiveness. While initially the newest wife, in this case Songlian, has the upper hand, gradually the complex machinations of the other wives and the desire of the master for an heir take their toll and lead to her tragic fate. Gong Li, who starred in Yimou’s Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, gives a ravishing, ultimately haunting performance as Songlian.

The film follows the shifting fortunes of the competing wives with a slow and deliberate pace and yet is absolutely captivating. The world within which they live is completely insular, yet disquietingly insecure. The discovery and subsequent denial of the mysteries connected with the master’s past prompts an inevitable comparison with revisionist histories of today’s China.

As usual, Yimou designs an exquisitely detailed and visually rich universe, whose compositions and art decoration constantly stimulate the eye. Although the film is unlikely to be screened in present-day China, it should not be missed by audiences elsewhere who have an opportunity to experience the talents of an exceptional cinematic storyteller.

— Geoffrey Gilmore

Screening Details

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