I can count the number of foreign films I have seen in my lifetime on one hand (a dismal and appalling circumstance for one who considers himself worldly and educated I know). My cinematic diet up to this point has been limited to Hollywoods often-narrow interpretation of the world. I have been a willing participant in the in my mis-education if you will, because it suited me. Also it takes a tremendous amount of energy to follow a film with subtitles; I am always afraid of missing something visually that lends itself to the overall meaning of the film, while I am reading the often incomplete translation at the bottom of the screen.
So why Hang The Red Lantern you might ask? I am currently taking a class in international film in order to fulfill credit requirements for my degree and Hang The Red Lantern was the film for last nights class. We watched the movie in its entirety on a screen the lent little justice to the visual feast that is one of the movies hallmarks.
Directed by acclaimed Chinese master Yimou Zhang, Hang The Red Lantern is the tragic tale of a young woman in early 20th century China. The young womanportrayed exquisitely by renowned Chinese actress Gong Liis named Songlian (pronounced Soong-Lienne). Songlian is sold to a wealthy Chinese man (known only as The Master) by her family (principally her mother) after the death of her father. Songlian is forced to leave the university where she was a student for six monthsto becoming The Masters fourth wife, his Fourth Mistress, the fourth sister. She enters a vipers nest of conflicting personalities, traditions, social standings all vying for The Maters attention, love, acknowledgement. The film spans one year, in the lives of the household in which time Songlian goes through a range of emotional upheavals and human trials on her way to eventual madness.
The other principles in the story include the three other wives, or concubines if you will, The Master, and Yaner, Songlians maid. Unlike a typical Hollywood production, character development is key to the story, and all the principles have hidden agendas and public faces that hide their true identity and intent. As the plot unfolds like the many layers of a ripe onion, plots and sub-plots are revealed that challenge our understanding and preconceived notions about Chinese culture in general and the often one-dimensional picture we often paint of Chinese women in particular.
The Master is always kept in the shadows or in the distance, we never get a good look at his face, though his presence is always felt, and his voice strongly heard. This is to covey to us that he is not the main focus of the story; it has the effect of almost de-humanizing him, turning him into an instrument of evil hemmed in by centuries of tradition, the embodiment of the way men relate to women; there, but not there, controlling, but not really in control.
Gong Li turns in a stunning performance. There is something in her eyes that captivate and hold; she is stunningly beautiful in almost every frame of the film; even when she is bedraggled she natural beauty shines like a beacon in the darkest of nights. Songlian is defiant, she is willful, she is childish, she is cruel, she is indifferent, but still I was on her side. There are long moments when Songlian stares into the camera saying nothing but conveying with her eyes all that needed to be said; passing on emotions with a gaze that begged to be returned and demanded to be acknowledged. And when the tears welled up in her eyes in several keys scenes, I wanted to reach out and comfort her, to sooth her, to enfold her in my arms and protect her. Such was the power of this film and her part in it!
Hang The Red Lantern is visually stunning and achingly beautiful. Most of the film is shot inside the confines of The Masters expansive house, but oh what a house it was. The directors use of color and light drew me into the picture and kept me there throughout. There were many shots of the hanging red lanterns (the lanterns by the way signify which wife The Master will share company with that night), juxtaposition against the soft light of the house, or interior of a room. The effect for me was soothing, though someone else watching the film might describe it as slightly sinister. Almost every shoot of the exterior of the house was in perfect symmetry and harmony with its immediate surroundings; there was a balance that was hard to miss, my eyes were continually pulled and lulled to its beauty. This to me echos the balance of Chinese culture of the time; i.e. where there is Yin there has to be Yang, and harmony must be maintained in order to live as one with nature.
The dresses women wore were works of art, and were often embroidered with colorful floral designs that drew my eyes to the woman wearing it not matter the setting. The dresses made the women wearing them into wondrous works of art, fragile looking and delicate, yet underneath these wonderments of multicolored silk lived lethal, conniving, ruthless, deceitful, mean, and often hateful being capable of great love of self and only contempt for others. The union was disquieting but intriguing to watch unfold.
I guess the true measure of any films ability to captivate its audience is its ability to compel us to want to see it again, to be so stirred emotionally that we would willingly expose ourselves once more to the complex underpinnings of our own demons and desires. This for me is one such film. I want to see it again, and again, and drink in all it has to offer me, so moved was I by its tightly woven plot, stunning visuals and outstanding acting.
Cast of Characters:
* Gong Li: Songlian
* Caifei He: The Third Concubine
* Jingwu Ma: The Master
* Cuifen Cao: The Second Concubine
* Zhao Qi: Housekeeper
* Jin Shuyuan: Yuru
* Ding Weimin: Songlian's mother
* Cao Zhengyin: Old servant
* Cui Zhihgang: Dr. Gao
* Chu Xiao: Feipu
* Kong Lin: Yan'er
Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older
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