I have just seen Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang Yimou’s claustrophobic 1991 film about a woman who becomes “Mistress Four” in a wealthy Chinese household sometime in the early twentieth century. The film received a great many awards and is widely considered a classic. I hated it.
Though it presents as a chick flick, centered on female characters and chock full of fancy costumes, it’s a decidedly misogynistic movie. The plot is driven by the wives’ (and a servant girls’) struggle for the attentions of the Master in a ritualized environment where every coupling is formally announced to everyone else through elaborate ritual. To make this plot work, it’s crucial that the women have about the same level of characterization you get in a high-end porno: Third Mistress was an opera singer, Fourth Mistress is a college girl who’s father was in the tea trade, and so on. As in a pornographic film, the outside world is excluded; everything takes place within the household. Clearly that’s an artistic choice meant to heighten the claustrophobia, but the story itself acknowledges that the women leave the house, sometimes unaccompanied: the Master offers at one point to take Songlian out for dumplings at a place she likes, and Third Mistress manages to get caught in a hotel having an affair with the family doctor.
And that’s what gives the lie to the whole thing. At the end, Songlian is driven mad by her helplessness in the face of the servants’ murder of Third Mistress for her affair. She paces the courtyard, alone and disheveled. There is, first of all, sheer laziness in that. Declaring your lady character insane is much easier than imagining how she might live with her trauma, and also totally unrealistic. And there, again, is the misogyny: depicting women as fragile, with minds that snap all too easily.
And it also goes against the facts we know. We know that Songlian connives. We know that she’s unhappy. We know that people come and go from the house. Why does she stay, permitted to pace about the place? Alas, we know too little of that outside world to imagine what she might fear in it. Everything is inward-focused, to the exclusion of reality itself.
OK, so is this some kind of complicated metaphor for life under Mao? Is the hothouse craving for the Master’s attention, and the infighting, and the murderousness of the servants, all some kind of allegory about the Communist Party? I don’t think it is, or if it is, it’s just not good enough.
Raise the Red Lantern is, in the end, a stylized costume drama. And it is, admittedly, haunting and compelling in some of its imagery. But it’s an overbearing film that dehumanizes its characters to no particular end.
Also, it’s boring.