Raise the Red Lantern (Simplified Chinese: 大红灯笼高高挂; Traditional Chinese: 大紅燈籠高高掛; pinyin: Dà Hóng Dēnglóng Gāogāo Guà; literally Big red lantern high high hang) is an award-winning 1991 Chinese-Hong Kong-Taiwan film, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li. It is an adaption by Ni Zhen of the 1990 novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong. The film was later adapted into an acclaimed ballet of the same title by the National Ballet of China, directed by Zhang Yimou himself.
The film tells the story of a young woman who becomes one of the concubines of a wealthy man during the Warlord Era. It is noted for its opulent visuals and sumptuous use of colors. The film was shot in Qiao's Compound in the ancient city of Pingyao, in Shanxi Province. Although the screenplay was approved by Chinese censors, the final version of the film was banned in China for a period. Some film critics have interpreted the film as a veiled allegory against Chinese communist authoritarianism. The film's popularity has also been attributed to helping Chinese tourism after the what was then recent government response to the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989.
The film is set in 1920s China during the warlord era, years before the Chinese Civil War. Nineteen-year-old Songlian (頌蓮, played by Gong Li), whose father has recently died and left the family bankrupt, marries into the wealthy Chen family, becoming the fourth wife or rather the third concubine — or, as she is referred to, the Fourth Mistress — of the household. Arriving at the palatial abode, she is at first treated like royalty, receiving sensuous foot massages, brightly-lit red lanterns, as well as nightly visits from her husband, Master Chen (Ma Jingwu), the master of the house.
Songlian soon discovers, however, that not all the concubines in the household receive the same luxurious treatment. In fact, the master decides on a daily basis the concubine he will spend the night with; whomever he chooses gets her lanterns lit, receives the foot massage, gets her choice of menu items at mealtime, and gets the most attention and respect from the servants. Pitted in constant competition against each other, the three concubines are continually vying for their husband's attention and affections.
The First Mistress, Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), appears to be nearly as old as the master himself. Having borne a son decades earlier, she seems resigned to live out her life as forgotten, always passed over in favor of the younger concubines. The Second Mistress, Zhuoyun (Cao Cuifen), befriends Songlian, complimenting her youth and beauty, and giving her expensive silk as a gift; she also warns her about the Third Mistress, Meishan (He Caifei), a former opera singer who is spoiled and who becomes unable to cope with no longer being the youngest and most favored of the master's playthings. As time passes, though, Songlian learns that it is really Zhuoyun, the Second Mistress, who is not to be trusted; she is subsequently described as having the face of the Buddha, yet possessing the heart of a scorpion.
Songlian feigns pregnancy, attempting to garner the majority of the master's time (and, at the same time, attempting to become actually pregnant: a self-fulfilling prophecy). Zhuoyun, however, is in league with Songlian's personal maid, Yan'er (燕兒, played by Kong Lin) who finds and reveals a pair of bloodied undergarments, suggesting that Songlian had recently had her period, and discovers the pregnancy is a fraud.
Zhuoyun summons the family physician, feigning concern for Songlian's "pregnancy." Doctor Gao (Cui Zhigang), who is secretly having an illicit affair with Third Mistress Meishan, examines Songlian and determines the pregnancy to be a sham. Infuriated, the master orders Songlian's lanterns covered with thick black canvas bags indefinitely. Blaming the sequence of events on Yan'er, Songlian reveals to the house that Yan'er's room is filled with lit red lanterns, showing that Yan'er dreams of becoming a Mistress instead of a lowly servant; it is suggested earlier that Yan'er is in love with the Master and has even slept with him in the Fourth Mistress' bed.
Yan'er is punished by having the lanterns burned while she kneels in the snow, watching as they smolder. In an act of defiance, Yan'er refuses to humble herself or apologize and thus remains kneeling in the snow throughout the night until she collapses. Yan'er falls sick and ultimately dies after being taken to the hospital. One of the servants tells Songlian that her former maid died with her mistress's name on her lips. Songlian, who had briefly attended university before the passing of her father and being forced into marriage, comes to the conclusion that she is happier in solitude; she eventually sees the competition between the concubines as a useless endeavor, as each woman is merely a "robe" that the master may wear and discard at his discretion.
As Songlian retreats further into her solitude, she begins speaking of suicide; she reasons that dying is a better fate than being a concubine in the Chen household. The opulent estate, while initially seeming lavish and posh, gradually morphs into a metaphorical prison compound in young Songlian's eyes.
On her twentieth birthday, severely intoxicated and despondent over her bitter fate, she inadvertently blurts out the details of the love affair between Meishan and Doctor Gao. Zhuoyun overhears the information and catches the adulterous couple together. Following the old customs and traditions, Meishan is dragged to a lone room on the roof of the estate and hanged to death by the master's servants.
Songlian, already in agony due to the fruitlessness of her life, witnesses the entire episode and is emotionally traumatized. The following summer, after the master's marriage to yet another concubine, Songlian is shown wandering the compound in her old schoolgirl clothes, having gone completely insane.
The Razor Digital Entertainment DVD release has been widely criticised. DVD Times states "Many other viewers will find this DVD release simply intolerable. DVDTown criticised the same release, giving the video quality 1 out of 10 and the audio quality 6 out of 10, summarising that "the video is a disaster". DVDFile adds to this stating "this horrible DVD is only recommended to those who love the movie so much, that they’ll put up with anything to own a Region 1 release. The translation on this version has been also widely criticised for its numerous inaccuracies. A release by Rajon Vision has also received poor commentary
Era's first release received similar attention but the second digitally remastered edition has been more warmly received with DVD Times stating that "It's a film that really needs a Criterion edition with a new print or a full restoration, but in the absence of any likelihood of that, this Era Hong Kong edition is about as good as you could hope for. DVDBeaver broadly agrees stating "Now, this is not Criterion image quality, but it is not bad at all. It is easily the best digital representation of this film currently available. DVD Talk, though, believes that "This new version is a stunner".
A new MGM release in 2007 has also received some positive feedback.
The film has also been praised for its artistic merit. Desson Howe of the Washington Post states that "In purely aesthetic terms, "Raise the Red Lantern" is breathtaking and James Berardinelli states that "the appeal to the eye only heightens the movie's emotional power".
The film has been interpretted by some critics as a criticism of contemporary China, although Zhang Yimou himself has sternly denied this.. Jonathon Crow of Allmovie states that "the perpetual struggle for power that precludes any unity among the wives provides a depressingly apt metaphor for the fragmented civil society of post-Cultural Revolution China". James Berardinelli makes a similar analogy in his review where he states that "Songlian is the individual, the master is the government, and the customs of the house are the laws of the country. It's an archaic system that rewards those who play within the rules and destroys those who violate them.