Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fools? Not so Much...

Film: Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua (Raise the Red Lantern)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

When I look at the 700+ movies I still need to watch to complete this list, I sometimes get frustrated by the number of subtitled movies still to get through. My brother Tom is slowly making his way through this list (I’ve evidently inspired him), and he made the comment the other day that he can’t work when he’s watching a foreign movie—they simply require too much concentration. He’s right. The reason I still have so many to get through is that I can’t really do anything else while I watch them. It’s difficult even to fold laundry or iron when I have to be ready for the next subtitle.

But it’s difficult to be upset with so many foreign movies in other-than-English languages when I come across those that are so very much worth watching. A case in point is Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua (Raise the Red Lantern), Zhang Yimou’s epic film of family politics. The film focuses on the life of Songlian (Li Gong). With her father dead at 19, Songlian is forced by her step-mother into a marriage to a wealthy man named Chen Zuoqian (Jingwu Ma). Marrying a wealthy man naturally comes with the privileges of wealth, but also with a very high price: Songlian will be the fourth wife in his household and at the bottom of the family hierarchy.

What follows is a tale of family and sexual politics. In Chen’s home, the wife who is chosen for a given night is given special privilege in the house that evening and the following day. At night she receives a foot massage and has red lanterns lighted at her house in the estate (hence the title of the film). The next day, the chosen wife selects the menu for the main meal. Thus there is real competition between at least three of the wives (the first wife is really too old to be much competition for the other three) to be chosen for the night.

As the newest member of the family, Songlian does not yet (and in fact does not for quite some time) understand the depths of the politics that are played. Much of it is petty, damaging each other for small and superficial gains, or damaging oneself to cause greater harm to another wife. This happens in virtually every aspect of the lives of these women, something that Songlian is slow to learn. More than anything, the house runs on an economy of spite and wickedness.

As the lowest on the totem pole, Songlian takes out her aggressions on her personal servant, Yan’er (Lin Kong), who herself believe that she was destined to become the Master’s fourth wife. The battles between these two is just as vicious and angry, just as spite filled as the battle between the wives, and in almost every case, Songlian comes out on the bottom.

Initially, she battles with the third mistress, Meishan (Saifei He), a former opera singer. Meishan has been spoiled as the youngest, prettiest, and most talented of the women for several years, and is not prepared to give up that special status for this new girl from the country. She and Songlian battle things out subtlely—Meishan forces Songlian to play Mahjong, causing the Master to spend a night with the second wife, Zhuoyan (Cuifen Cao). It is during this game that Songlian discovers some very important information: Meishan is having an affair with Gao (Zhihgang Cui), the family doctor.

However, it’s not long after this that Songlian discovers that Zhuoyan is really her main rival despite her pretenses of friendship and gift giving. Zhuoyan pulls the strings of everyone else in the house despite the fact that she did not give the Master a son, but only a “worthless” daughter (their words, not mine). Zhuoyan knows all she can about Songlian through Yan’er, who has essentially been bought and paid for. And so it seems that Songlian has no one she can trust and no one who is truly on her side in anything.

Much of the value of this film is in what it depicts and how it depicts it. Essentially, it is a very small story with only a handful of characters who have anything like a vested interest in the outcome: the three wives (leaving out the first one), the Master, and Yan’er. For this reason, there is an intimacy to this film that makes it a careful portrait of these characters. On the other hand, the theme is near universal. Everyone has been on the receiving end of a political screw job somewhere—family, school, work—and so the basic theme here is universal. While very different from Dangerous Liaisons, there is a real similarity to the two films in how sex is used not merely as a weapon, but as an offensive weapon on the attack.

Beyond this sort of universality of theme, there is a real beauty to this film. Many of the shots are lingering distance shots of the lighted lanterns while conversation goes on somewhere at the extreme end of the frame. These shots, many of them monochromatic, only add to the feeling of isolation and emotional distance that permeates this grand estate, and so they work perfectly as a symbol as well as being stunningly gorgeous. I also like the fact that the Master of the house is never really shown. He’s always in shadow or veiled, and the audience never sees his face. In many ways, although the women exist to serve and please him, his identity is unimportant. What’s more important is the idea of him.

I knew not what to expect here, and came out pleasantly surprised. This is not a happy movie, but it is beautiful and moving.

Why to watch Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua : Human nature, politics, infighting, pain, tragedy, and beauty.
Why not to watch: Sometimes evil has a pretty face.


  1. "It’s difficult even to fold laundry or iron when I have to be ready for the next subtitle."

    Heh, heh...I know exactly what you mean and feel the same way. Although I must admit that i've become a subtitle junkie and can't not watch them when they're included. I find that with subtitles I catch more of a movie, especially names in films with large casts, and so on.

  2. Agreed. I often watch films in English with subtitles for that very reason. It helps with names and it helps with dialog covered up by other noises.

    One of the greatest subtitle jokes ever pulled is in Snatch. Guy Ritchie specifically made the Brad Pitt character unintelligible. If you watch with subtitles...his lines are not included.

  3. I remember when Raise the Red Lantern came out in 1991. I was watching a lot of foreign films back then, but somehow I never got around to this one.

    And WOW I wish I had seen it back then! A really beautiful film with wonderful performances, not just from Gong Li, but from everybody, from the maid to all the Sister Wives.

    I can't believe I've never seen one of Gong Li's movies before! I remember she was kind of a big deal for a while. She's luminous and magical. The Chinese Catherine Deneuve!

    1. This is one that I should probably revisit one of these days. Bits of the story are lost to me at the moment, but I remember it being both beautiful and brutal.