World Cinema Wednesday: Raise The Red Lantern

Hello fans and movie buffs,

It’s Wednesday and that means it’s time to explore a film that you might not have known existed: Raise The Red Lantern. For this film discussion allow me to walk you through how a film student and critic “reads” a film; that’s right today we will be performing a textual analysis of this beautifully directed piece of cinematic history.

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Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, Raise the Red Lantern presents a visually rich critique of the Chinese patriarchal discourse regarding the family structure, the concubine system, and gender relations. Though the film has been criticized for it’s fetishization of the female orient for a western audience, the film’s use of mise-en-scene and sound provide a powerful critique of female oppression under a patriarchal authority; this critique serves as a metaphor against the oppression of the national government.

Directed by Zang Yimou, the film charts one woman’s gradual descent into madness. Songlian whose family has been devastated by the recent death of her father, becomes the third concubine of wealthy Master Chen. She soon discovers that behind the palatial luxury of life in the master’s house, she and her fellow concubines, Zhuoyan and Meishan, are pitted against each other in a struggle for his affections. The situation inevitably leads to deception, jealous rages, and the revelation of each other’s darkest secrets.  Let’s examine the film more closely….

The “Iron House”

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Upon her marriage, Songlian enters the courtyard of the master’s home and shown to her living quarters. The setup of the courtyard closes the women off from the outside world, isolating them. Placed in such a setting, the characters have little freedom. The wives live according to routine, dictated by tradition. The only open space located within the courtyard is the roof, yet this is also where the death house is found where women were hanged for having elicit affairs. Thus, death is presented through the setting as the only escape from tradition. The director transforms this metaphor into the visually closed space where the master lives in order to explore the oppressive nature of tradition. The iron house also serves as national allegory. China is seen as a patriarchal authority, like the master, that denies its people, signified by the wives, any possibility of freedom.

The Red Lantern

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The lantern is lit as the master arrives for the night, extinguished as he leaves, and permanently veiled should a wife violate the master’s rules as demonstrated with Songlian after her faked pregnancy is discovered. As a visual and patriarchal symbol, the lantern indicates male possession of the female body. The color red suggest sexual engagement. The lanterns signify the rise and fall of the women in the sexual economy of the household .Since the lantern indicates the master’s favor and accords them privileges such as picking the menu and getting a foot massage. Thus, the women turn on each other and compete for these privileges – they compete for the master’s sexual attention.

Female Oppression

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Within the narrative, the right to own the female body is the primary source of conflict. Wives compete against each other for the master’s attention. Women can’t control the course of the narrative; only the master decides which woman is chosen or neglected. The film shows that a woman’s desire to meet the master’s demands requires the sacrifice of the female body. The destructive consequences of the female body – sickness, pregnancy, menstruation, sexual affairs are turned into elements of competition between the wives. In the film, women take the positions of both oppressor and oppressed which allows men to retreat from the scene and deflect accusations of patriarchal oppression.

Women are fetishized; they are staged for spectacle while the male, signified by Master Chen, manipulates the show from the background. Like Chen, the audience indulges in voyeuristic pleasure of watching the women as the master is never granted true agency by the camera; the man is always seen far away, never through a close-up. The absence of the Master (male figure) doesn’t diminish his authority – in fact his absence reinforces his authority and the patriarchal discourse of the nation. The invisibility of the male figure leaves a space that invites the spectator to project its gaze on the female image; in film theory is known as the Male gaze.

Sound: The Foot Massage

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In this film, the concept of the foot massages are linked to female sexual desire. This desire is only actualized at the favor of the master; thus, men inhibit and control female desire. Consider this example: In the film, as the second wife is chosen to get the foot massage treatment, the Songlian and the maid both fantasize about receiving the massage. These two scene are connected by the sound of foot massage beaters first being heard at the 2nd house, then the film switches to Songlian who sits with her feet propped up and eyes closed in an almost euphoric way as the sound intensifies, and finally, the scene cuts to the maid imagining the same massage treatment being given to her while in her shabby room. The transition of sound from an onscreen image of the second wife’s massage to the off-screen space creates and visual atmosphere that connects all three women.

Sound: Music

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The film provides one source of agency for the women beyond the technique of the close-up…music. Music serves as an outlet for the female voice. The role of music as embodied by a female singing voice, provides a temporary means for women to assert their desires and frustrations; this is most notably demonstrated by the case of the third wife, Meshain who was once a famous opera singer. Singing allows Meshian an escape from the iron-house and speaks to her affair with the doctor as music is playing in the background when Songlian discovers their affair. Meshian’s pursuit of a sexual affair is a transgression of the Iron House; it expresses her desire to seek love on her own terms.

Madness

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Ultimately, however, Meshian’s voice is silenced once her affair is known and she is killed. Meshian’s silence via hanging gives rise to another female voice – Songlian’s mad scream. At first, her madness allows her to seek a kind of revenge for killing Meshian, playing her record and letting the guards think her house is haunted. Songlian like Meshian is also silenced by the master; after Meshian’s death, he tells Songlian that she saw nothing. Songlian is then proclaimed mad, and the patriarchal order is preserved.

And that is what a film textual analysis looks like.

*All Images are Screen-caped from the film*

Ask: What’s Your Favorite Foreign Film?

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