Raise the Red Lantern
The darker side of human nature at its petty, competitive, jealous worst takes center stage in Zhang Yimou's heartbreaking Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Set in 1920s China, the film (adapted from the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong) stars a luminous Gong Li as Songlian, a 19-year-old university student forced to drop out of school and become a rich man's fourth wife after her father dies. In the enclosed, claustrophobic world of the Master's (Ma Jingwu) vast compound, everything revolves around which wife can draw and hold his attention, as symbolized by the coveted red lanterns that are lit in the chosen one's quarters if she is to be the night's companion. The "sisters," as they call each other, compete relentlessly for that vivid sign of the Master's favor, since she who wins the lanterns also wins foot massages, her favorite dishes at meals, and the right to lord it above the others. The Master's first wife, Yuru (Shuyan Jin), is the only one who holds herself outside the fray, mostly because, as the oldest woman in the group and the mother of the Master's heir, Feipu (Xiao Chu), her time as an active wife is over and her place as a respected matriarch is secure. But Nos. 2 and 3, Zhouyun (Cao Cuifen) and Meishan (He Caifei), are still very much in the running, and each has her own way of dealing with the newcomer. Songlian's ambition and intelligence make her abrupt lifestyle change all the harder to bear. She can't help getting caught up in the rivalry among the wives, but whenever she steps back and considers their life, she feels trapped and confused. Her despair causes her first to lash out at her jealous maid, Yan'er (Kong Lin), and later, to reveal secrets that eventually lead to tragedy. All the while, Yimou surrounds her with stark, austere beauty, playing with light and shadow and always returning to the dramatic red glow of the lanterns. Raise the Red Lanterns nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 1992 is a haunting, contemplative study of man's inhumanity to man (or, in this case, woman's inhumanity to woman), as well as the restrictions and feudal intricacies of Chinese society. Along with the earlier Li-Yimou pairing Ju Dou, Razor Digital Entertainment brings Raise the Red Lantern to DVD as part of its "Zhang Yimou Collection." Unfortunately, this release (also like Ju Dou ) doesn't do the director's reputation any favors. The source-print seen in the 1.85:1 widescreen transfer (not 2.35:1, as the packaging suggests) is riddled with scratches and flaws, and it often looks poorly defined (to the point of blurriness) on larger televisions. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is decent (a 2.0 track is also available, along with English and Chinese both simplified and traditional subtitles), but the subtitle translation is incredibly slipshod. Spelling and word choice errors abound; for example (and these are only a few of many), Songlian is repeatedly referred to as the "forth" wife, Yan'er is often called a "savant" instead of a "servant," and at one point, Zhouyun tells the Master that she wants to "bare his son." No extras; keep-case.