Various Analyses of Raise the Red Lantern
When Zhang Yimou’s 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern opens, the first shot is of actress Gong Li’s face. She plays the protagonist, Songlian, a university student who must drop out of her studies due to financial troubles at home. Immediately we know that the situation worsens—Songlian’s face is hard, her eyes staring at a place below the camera, every single muscle motionless. “Mother, stop,” she says. “I’ve thought it through. Alright, I’ll get married.”
These statements don’t quite cover the full meaning behind her words. In the original Mandarin, the last statement is “嫁人就嫁人吧.” The English subtitles can’t convey her distress and resignation that the cadence and repetition of the Mandarin signifies, but nonetheless her powerlessness is evident. Songlian is poor, but beautiful—her only option is to become the fourth concubine of a wealthy man.
While women in the United States certainly faced oppression in the early twentieth century, nothing can prepare them for the repressed, furious tension found among the four wives in the Chen mansion. These women are forbidden from wandering out of the courtyard, and instead they find what little amusement they can in strolling the massive grounds or poisoning each other’s minds. Indeed, the entire film can be summarized as a reaction against the toxicity of the Chinese patriarchy. Each of these women—the first wife, a woman old and forgotten; the second, a mass of hatred behind a placid surface; the third, a petty Peking Opera star; and Songlian—are in constant battle among themselves for favoritism with the unseen Master; for each night when he returns a set of red lanterns are lit in the yard of the favored wife, and it is with her that he spends the night. To his concubines, being pregnant is the only form of freedom they are allowed.
Throughout the film, the red lanterns act as harbingers of action. In Chinese tradition, red lanterns are only lit in days of festivity: Chinese New Year, for instance, or in a wedding procession. In Raise the Red Lantern, cymbals and fireworks accompany the presence of the lanterns. When the Master returns back to his mansion, the gongs are struck and the lanterns are hung. Everything revolves around this muddled mixture of melancholy and celebration. A particularly striking scene in the film revolves around Songlian’s revenge against Yan’er, her young servant, who dreams of being a concubine and hoards old lanterns in her room. After Yan’er betrays her to the second wife, Songlian tosses the old lanterns to the center of the courtyard and has them set aflame. The final scene, with the ashes littering the snowy ground, is strangely evocative of the remains of fireworks after Chinese New Year.
What Raise the Red Lantern does best, however, is its portrayal of Songlian’s evolution from a comparably worldly student to someone whose actions become driven by jealousy and rage, like the concubines she once viewed herself as separate from. And we, as the audience, come to understand what made her this way. Her first day as a concubine, she is disturbed from her sleep by the third wife, who sings Peking Opera on the roofs of the mansion to extract her own form of revenge. The second wife is thought to be a friend, first treating Songlian with kindness and then presenting her with costly silk brocade—however, she is revealed later on to be conspiring with Yan’er, and is responsible for unveiling Songlian’s false pregnancy. After that incident the situation changes; now, Songlian has a shaky alliance with the third wife.
The height of the drama comes with the discovery of an illicit affair between the third wife and the family’s doctor. We have seen before in the film the destruction caused by the household’s fixation on keeping up with the traditions; it is due to tradition that Songlian was humiliated for faking her pregnancy, and that Yan’er was forced to kneel in the snow in front of her burning lanterns. And it is also due to tradition that we find ourselves near Songlian, witnessing the hanging of the third wife in a small rooftop shed by order of the master, all the while feeling horrified and responsible for the reveal of the affair. She is traumatized; so are we.
Near none of this means anything. In the end, we hear the cymbals and flutes again—it is time for another wedding. Amongst the red tinsel and lanterns in the courtyard, we see a solitary figure in a school uniform. Two hours ago (in the film) she had been a startling contrast against the gray brick of the building; now, she is just another shadow, wandering about the compound, eyes dead and hair unkempt. Songlian has gone insane, and who can blame her?