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.
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.