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Raise the Red Lantern

Starring: Li Gong
Director: Yimou Zhang
Genre: Drama
Year: 1991
Rating: 4 / 5

Reviewed by Guest Scribe Legend

Raise the Red Lantern, though steeped in Chinese culture and tradition, is adequately digestible to a Western audience. The centerpiece of the story is Songlian (Li Gong), sent off to be a concubine wife to a rich landowner in 1920s China. When she arrives at her new home, she is shown her quarters, and wonders why there are so many red lanterns about the place. The servants explain to her that each night, the Master of the house chooses which of his concubines he will spend the night with. That concubine will have the lanterns outside her private apartment lighted and raised to signify that she is the chosen one on the given night. Each night at dusk, all the concubines gather, and which house will have lighted lanterns will be announced. The following day, the chosen concubine essentially gets to run the household, choosing what will be eaten for the meals, and, more importantly, getting a sense of one-upmanship over the other concubines.

Young and pretty, Songlian is the Fourth Mistress of the household. After her marriage, her name is no longer relevant, she is simply Fourth Mistress (or Fourth Sister, to the other concubines). The Fourth Mistress soon discovers she must compete for the Master's affections. The Third Mistress (Caifei He) is also young and beautiful, and she dresses fashionably and sings opera. She was clearly top dog before the arrival of the Fourth Mistress, and immediately resorts to pettiness and cattiness to get her way.

Even more formidable competition is the Second Mistres (Cuifen Cao). More middle-aged, she is sugary sweet and kills many a fly with honey. However, her intentions are clouded. As the Third Mistress declares, she "has a Buddha's face but a scorpion's heart." Finally, the First Mistress is an old bag, and a nonentity for the Master's affections. In fact, she has a son by the Master close in age to the Fourth Mistress. Thus, The Fourth Mistress feels desperately alone as she is flung into a wretched game of backbiting and underhanded competition. The Mistresses use any and all tactics to get their way.

The Fourth Mistress must also contend with her personal serving maid, Yan'er, who hates her since she herself expected to be chosen as Fourth Mistress. The relationship between Yan'er and the Fourth Mistress is intriguing, as are Yan'er's alliances within the web of gossip and deceit which is spun across the household. Living in luxury, all four mistresses are desperately alone. It is the women of this film who are important, though. The Master himself is simply a tool which the women jockey for to use as a scepter over the other concubines. Cleverly portrayed, the Master is only visible from the shadows in most shots, and even after the film finishes we don't really ever get a good clean shot of exactly what he looks like.

Given the setup, perhaps it is a no-brainer that the film would be marred by tragedy. Which Mistress of the four comes out on top by the end is reasonably unpredictable, as are the shifting alliances and revelations which spill out as the movie progresses. My only complaint about this movie is the lack of a denouement. The plot just seems to end abruptly without a lot of unraveling, though we are at least given a glimpse of what is in store for the future of the household once the story concludes. Overall, Raise the Red Lantern is a recommended film that I believe most will enjoy.


Li Gong..........Fourth Mistress
Caifei He..........Third Mistress
Cuifen Cao..........Second Mistress
Kong Lin..........Yan'er

Certification: Rated PG.
Running Time: 125 minutes.

Additional Info: Internet Movie Database
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