Seeing Red

Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991), the subject of this week’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” over at The Film Experience, is a feast for the eyes. It’s one painterly image after another, with the sumptuous set design only outdone by the gorgeous lighting. But this beauty is lined with pain. It goes hand in hand with the traditions that constrain four wives of the same man in 1920s China, pitting them against one another and forcing them to play by the patriarchal rules. Teetering between self-interest and sisterhood, these women wage wars and form tentative alliances underneath the film’s lush surface.

The most adept of these warriors is Meishan (He Caifei), the Third Mistress and a former opera singer. As such, she’s every inch the diva, and her star entrance (pictured above) is one of my favorite shots in the film. Late for dinner, she slides into the room and instantly everyone’s eyes are on her. Yet aside from that red dress, she’s not overtly attention-grabbing; her expression is a little calculating, a little condescending, but mostly just detached. It’s all a subtle performance for the benefit of her husband and rivals. I love the way she tilts and sways, taking her sweet time to approach the table. Her years of domestic battle are manifested in her movement, because even a simple entrance has tactical significance.

As Meishan knows, it’s all about appearance. Life in Raise the Red Lantern’s China is driven by pageantry, and my favorite shot comes from the film’s most elaborate pageant—Fourth Mistress (and protagonist) Songlian’s wedding night. Tucked between a ritual foot massage and a night of ritual sex, it’s one of the film’s magnificent long shots. Songlian lies on its horizon, the point of convergence for diagonal lines rising out of its corners. But the composition isn’t merely elegant: it’s also dehumanizing, positing her as merely a piece of this ritualized mise-en-scène.

She’s subsumed by the grandeur and sanctity of the red lanterns. The lanterns: physical objects through which Yimou and virtuoso cinematographer Zhao Fei drench the boudoir in atmosphere, but also signifiers of household law. Thanks to the lanterns, it’s clear that this isn’t so much a wedding night as an instantiation of tradition, a further reassurance that the husband’s lineage will be passed on. It isn’t about Songlian at all. Her oppression is encoded into the shot’s visual majesty, making its pain just as great as its beauty.

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