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Tuesday
May012012

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Raise the Red Lantern"

In the Hit Me With Your Best Shot Series we look at pre-selected films from all decades, genres and countries and choose the shots that mean the most to us. Today, Zhang Yimou's Oscar nominated masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern (1991) starring the exquisite Gong Li. You could stare at her face for hours and Zhang Yimou knows it, framing his sensational then muse dead center close-up in an unbroken shot for the film's very first moment, a conversation that's more like a self-annihilating monologue.

Introducing Songlian (Gong Li), the The Fourth Mistress...

Songlian: Mother, stop! You've been talking for three days. I've thought it over. All right, I'll get married.
Mother: Good! To what sort of man?
Songlian: What sort of man? Is it up to me? You always speak of money. Why shouldn't I marry a rich man?
Songlian's Mother: Marry a rich man and you'll only be his concubine.

Raise the Red Lantern is strange riveting look into the secluded estate of a rich man in China. Songlian, a 19 year old university drop out, becomes his Fourth Mistress. The Master is barely even a character in his own world, cleverly left on the edges of the frame or visible only in longshots. Raise the Red Lantern's true subject is the wives/concubines who vie for his attention, hoping that the lanterns will be lit at their house indicating his favor. The women compete for this honor partially out of boredom but also, clearly, due to their own patriarchal sexist indoctrination. One of the wives refers to her only child as "a cheap little girl" and even Songlian, the most educated among them, willfully resigns herself to a fate where she lives only to serve a man she cares nothing about.

Songlian: Let me be a concubine. Isn't that a woman's fate?

At first you wonder where Gong Li's performance could possibly go since she starts the film as an emptied out shell, already implacably sad. But the performance has unexpected range. Soon she's more lively, caught up in the psychological catfighting and attempts to please her Master and eventually the sadness curdles barely visibly into rage. The women play petty and truly vicious games for a prize that none of them want. It's as damning a screed against institutional sexism as I've ever seen and a profoundly sad portrait of the way oppressed people often become agents in their own oppression.

Though the film is completely ravishing too look at, with perfect symmetrical compositions, extraordinarily warm color and repeated closeups of one of the all time great screen faces, choosing a best shot seems perverse. Why? Because Raise the Red Lantern is pure cinema, it's images only gaining their true potency when lined up with the other images and juxtaposed with sound both expected and surprising from out of frame, revealing subtle differences of season, emotional flare-ups, or actual narrative shifts. 

The film's cumulative power is far greater than any individual moment but two shots completely unsettled me, my entire body seizing up as things spun out of control for the concubines and servants. The first was a profoundly sad shot of Songlian's maid Yan'er watching her own stolen lanterns burn to ash, their beauty snuffing out along with her dreams however impossibly tiny those dreams may have been. You know as you're watching that she'll die with them.

The second, and perversely my choice for "best" is the most atypical shot in the film's otherwisely stately composition and serene camera movements. Not since David Lynch's camera lept like a wild beast toward Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive has a shift in camera movement upset me as much. It's screen magic as I can't explain away its deep affect on me. In a sequence near film's end (I'll withhold spoilers) Songlian has witnessed (from afar) a disturbing event at "The House of Death" a mysterious locked room on the rooftops she was warned about early in the film. As she approaches the house we suddenly move to a shaky POV shot from Songlian the camera as unstable and fearful as her heavy chilled breath. 

Three frames juxtaposed (to approximate shaky cam) as Songlian approaches the House of Death

Songlian begins the film with something like youthful arrogance, a haughty contempt for everyone and everything (including herself). When she makes dramatic pronouncements like

Ghosts are people. People are ghosts."

it's difficult to separate the drama queen from a sharp truth teller. Songlian's initially shallow pronouncements and anger about the meaningless of her existence are giving way to a deeper understanding of how right she's been. Songlian is mad at the world and driving herself to madness. The locked room is the least of it. This whole estate is the House of Death.


Raise the Lanterns For
The Seventh Mistress...The Film's The Thing
The Eighth Mistress... Cinesnatch
The Ninth Mistress... Film Actually  
The Tenth Mistress... Antagony & Ecstasy
The Eleventh Mistress...  Encore Entertainment
The Twelfth Mistress... Okinawa Assault
The Thirteenth Mistress ... Pussy Goes Grrr

Next on 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot': Tomorrow  Pariah (2011); Wednesday May 9th, The Exorcist (1973); Wednesday May 15th, the original Burton + Depp fantasy Edward Scissorhands (1990); Wednesday May 23rd, Joan Crawford in Possessed (1947). Join in! Movies are too beautiful to experience alone.

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Reader Comments (11)

"Movies are too beautiful to experience alone."

Which is why I am thankful every day for your blog. The boyfriend just doesn't understand the film obsession :)

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

big hugs Travis. I'm happy you love it.

May 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

When I have time, I desperately need to rewatch this one and maybe understand it a bit better but I love your entry because you touched on something I wanted to discuss but wasn't sure how - the shaking camera in that scene. It's so strikingly different from everything else (was I the only who felt significantly unnerved by that scene, and other beats - almost horror-like in some ways) and just opens up so many themes about the film.

Foreign cinema is my most egregious cinematic blindspot, so I'm glad you made me watch this.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Andrew K -- made you watch it. I sound like a dominatrix. Benevolent, mind you! Glad you enjoyed. I'd never seen it either (which is weird because I love Gong Li & Zhang Yimou together and I remember after seeing Ju Dou for the first time -- which would also be amazing for this series -- that I should see everything.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

If I'm the Twelfth Mistress who's Tiger Woods.

But seriously, your second favourite shot reminds me of sequences earlier in the film where Songlian in her isolation roams the compound through the rooftop level pathways. It felt like freedom and solitude at one point but her navigation skills end in witnessing tragedy, as she's be warned. And the pathetic fallacy of it all happening in winter too.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

WHY has Gong Li never won an Oscar?

Ridiculous.

amazing actress, gorgeous woman.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill

i didn't notice that the camera did that. or maybe i did and just thought i was hallucinating. i did watch the film pretty late at night...

the film kinda reminds me of a fairy tale or fable in many ways. and that chamber on the roof is straight out of bluebeard...

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterabstew

Nathaniel, your incredibly eloquent review almost had me in tears recalling how I felt watching RTRL for the first time. It's been far too long since I last saw it and I must rectify this immediately! Your analysis of the difficulty of picking a single shot is spot-on - some films are such a perfect marriage of sight and sound in context that they defy encapsulation in a single sensory element. Thank you for your insights on this stunning film - I really hope it encourages more people to check it out.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSally

I didn't notice it either. I do remember a very ominous feeling about that scene though.

Oh, and Gong Li is a goddess. Her character transformation throughout this film is mesmerizing. Just thought I should throw that out there.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

sally, thank you. I really was blown away by the film so I'd be thrilled if someone sought it out because of this.

abstew & squasher -- maybe I hallucinated it then. That's probably why it reminded me of David Lynch. It just shook me.

May 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Goddess Gong Li and her work with Zhang Yimou in general is a cinematic duet for the ages.

I need to re-watch this one as it's been about a decade (thanks for reminding me!) but I also need to dive into some of their other work as it's been even longer. I heard Shanghai Triad is beyond stunning, I think I'll start there.

Great write-up, Nate! So wonderfully eloquent and lovingly adoring. This is one of your best written entries for HMWYBS.

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First
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