"Raise the Red Lantern," opening today at the Charles, is a fable of political oppression so delicate and exquisite it seems more like a trip to the Walters' Hackerman House. It's so precious it makes you gasp in awe before it makes you cringe in pain.
But it does make you cringe in pain.
After "Red Sorghum" and "Jou Do," filmmaker Zhang Yimou has, by this time, cemented a world reputation as a pictorialist: his works are characteristically gorgeous before they are anything else and after they are everything else and "Raise the Red Lantern" is a dream of wispy symmetry and wintry gray chills and Chinese architecture so delicate and precise it stuns. In fact, it's only after an hour or so of gawking at this special and private world you've entered do you realize you're watching a horror story.
The fable being illustrated is the old saw that the powers that be keep being by keeping the powers that don't be fighting among themselves. It's the elementary truth of Realpolitik, of course, even in the rarefied atmosphere of what can only be called "concubine warfare." "Raise the Red Lantern," set in the late '20s, chronicles what happens when Mistress No. 4 arrives at the great house and usurps the position of Mistress No. 3 and Mistress No. 2 and how Mistress No. 2, the truly cunning one, works Mistress No. 4's anger in such a way to destroy Mistress No. 3 and Mistress No. 4, thus cementing herself in the place of Mistress No. 2 and, since Mistress No. 1 is in her dotage, her actual place in the order of things is No. 1.
The women are brilliant and beautiful and hopelessly unaware of how their enthusiastic participation in the system that oppresses them guarantees its existence. In fact, we never even see the master's face: he's a somewhat amorphous figure, who quite inadvertently (and by habit) plays the four women off against each other, each night making his selection (when No. 4 is chosen, the red lantern is raised above her doorway, thus infuriating the others and yet warning them of how tenuous
their positions are).
This transpires in a palace that itself is a metaphor for pre-revolutionary China in which the very claustrophobic beauty of the architecture stands for the rigidity of the society and the intricacy of the class laws that kept everybody so moored into his place it was almost conceptually impossible to imagine any other way. However passionate and accurate this insight may be, it does beg the question of what came after, a 50-year reign of totalitarianism equally oppressive (the significant difference being that these mandarins wore the red star on their collars) and still largely intact.
Still, the movie is exquisite if depressing and Gong Li, who plays Songlian (No. 4), is a supple and brilliant actress, as she proved in "Red Sorghum" and "Jou Do." "Raise the Red Lantern" acquires force as it accelerates toward tragedy, and unlike nearly all American movies of today, it echoes in the mind.
'Raise the Red Lantern'
Starring Gong Li.
Directed by Zhang Yimou.
Released by Orion Classics.