Raise red lantern Chinese director Zhang Yimou.

Essay by jstarxUniversity, Bachelor'sA+, April 2003

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Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou) is the most exciting thing to happen to film melodrama since German emigre Douglas Sirk came to Hollywood and reinvigorated the form in the 1950s. Raise the Red Lantern is like some exotic hothouse specimen that's beautiful to the eye yet caustic to the touch. What Zhang undertakes here is nothing less than a biting examination of sexual politics, mandarin-style. But it's more than that. It's an indictment of the ways in which we participate in our own subjugation no matter what our nationality, era or fiscal circumstance. Set in 1920s China, the movie opens with the decision of 19-year-old Songlian (Gong Li) to leave college after the death of her father and accept the marriage offer of a wealthy older man named Chen because she can no longer endure the company of her stepmother. She will become Chen's Fourth Wife, a concubine in a feudal marriage system.

Striking her blow for independence from her stepmother, Songlian seals her fate, enters Chen's family compound and never again emerges. Sucked into this serpentine household arrangement in which each wife has her own residence and courtyard (though they are all connected via a structural network of walls, parapets and roofing), Songlian at first plays to win. And what is won? -- the sexual attentions of the master (who is virtually unseen by the camera). Power within the household is apportioned on the basis of where the master sleeps at night. The rewards for the chosen wife include a sensuous foot massage delivered by a toothless old crone and the power to select the next day's menu for the entire household. An ancient family tradition explains the red lanterns of the title: wherever the master decides to spend the night is ritualistically...