In my never-ending (and probably impossible) quest to catch up on the movies I always wanted but never managed to see, I finally watched Zhang Yimou's "Raise the Red Lantern" from 1991.
It's a striking film in several ways. The visual imagery makes an immediate impression, especially the director's use of color. The music and rhythms of the film do a good job of setting the mood. One of the characters is a former opera singer, and the film has an operatic feel. The story itself is simple on the surface but has and underlying complexity that lends itself to multiple interpretations. The combination of these elements keeps the film gripping and provocative throughout.
The plot, very briefly, involves a student who, after her father's death, is forced to abandon her studies and become a concubine to a rich man. Songlian is the fourth and newest "mistress" of the household and occupies a quarter of the master's compound. The title of the film comes from the tradition of lighting red lanterns in the house of the mistress with whom the master will spend the night. Vying for that privelege embroils Songlian in the manipulations and intrigue of the other competing mistresses.
I'm not well-versed in Chinese history and culture, so I'm sure there is symbolism that was lost on me, and the lessons I take away from the film were filtered through a western sensibility. I did read some background information on the film after viewing it, which I've included links to below.
Two ideas struck me while watching the film:
The Clash of the Modern and Traditional
Songlian represents the first impulses of the modern. The film doesn't tell us much of her past, but we know she studied for a semester at university and plays the flute, so she is an educated and cultured young woman. Despite this, her circumstances trap her into a life she doesn't want. This conflict is established in the very first scene, as Songlian gives in to her step-mother's wishes and makes the only choice she feels she has. Resigning herself to her fate as a concubine Songlian says, "What more could be offered to women!" Powerfully, the camera maintains a close-up of her face as tears fall from her eyes.
At the Master's compound, this tension between the modern and the demands and superstitions of traditional culture becomes more apparent. Songlian must submit to the Chen family rules, working within a power structure that supresses and distorts her best qualities. These rules serve to uphold the prevailing social order, and those who live under them are left to fight each other for the small favors and priveleges that the master lets drop.
When she first arrives, Songlian tries to openly challenge the master and his treatment of her. She is punished for this as he takes away priveleges usually accorded to the newest mistress, and that give her an enhanced social standing within the group of wives and servants. This forces Songlian to engage in the games of deceit and manipulation that the other wives play, and ends in the deaths of her maid and the third mistress as well as her own insanity.
Considering that the film was made shortly after the Tiannament Square massacre, it's possible to view Songlian as representative of the burgeoning democracy movement in China that was dealt with in such a deadly manner.
I see a similar (but less openly destructive) struggle taking place in our current society, as the forces of modernization are being suffocated by the demands of the old and prevailing social order. Our economic realities are undergoing major shifts, and the social institutions that grew up around the old realities are starting to fragment and fall apart. Until new social instutions are put in place that correspond to the new economics, tensions will persist and those who represent the future will reap the worst of it.
Masters and Servants
It's easy to focus blame on the master for the ills portrayed, but in many ways it is the general acceptance of the "rules" that govern the house that leads to everything that happens in the film. Early on Songlian is the only one who questions and challenges these rules, but she finally acquiesces and demands their strict enforcement in order to get revenge on her maid, who has betrayed her secret of a false pregnancy to the Master. It's after becoming an active agent of the rules that she begins her final downfall into insanity.
There is plenty of culpability to be divvied up. The servants and mistresses refuse to question or resist the grip these rules have over them, and in so doing perpetuate them. Notably, to me, it is the servants who physically carry out the death sentence on the third mistress, an act that everyone but Songlian denies even happened.
My argument here is that when a society is built on rules, superstitions, and traditions that are oppressive, it's never a matter of swapping out a "good" master for a bad one. To effect real change requires fundamentally rejecting those rules and replacing them with a new social order that offers freedom and growth rather than stagnation.
If you want to read more about the film, including a lot more insight into the cultural history behind it, here are some links to information that I found online:
Wikipedia entry on the film (including background, plot summary, cast and awards)
IMDB entry on the film (with some more details and a short review)
A biography of Zhang Yimou
The NY Times Review of the film
The “Confusion Ethics”of Raise the Red Lantern by David Neo
A Film Review by James Berardinelli