Zhang Yimou’s Raise The Red Lantern is simply one of the most elegantly staged, perfectly lit and beautifully photographed films ever made. Every scene is meticulously framed and composed, with every single frame worthy of being hung in a picture gallery. But it is more than just a series of pretty pictures. Every image tells its own story, expressing mood, character and detail through the costumes, the set designs, the colours and the lighting. Even though the film doesn’t leave the confines of the household for a single scene, even the heat, rain and snow of the passing seasons each impress their own character onto the turbulent machinations and events that go on there.
Forced by her stepmother to give up her studies at university, a young 19 year-old girl Songlian (Gong Li) agrees to take a husband – but on her own terms. If she must marry, she wants to marry a rich man. Thus Songlian becomes a concubine as the Fourth Mistress of the rich Master of the Chen household. She is given her own maid, Yang, and soon learns the ancient customs and rituals of the household. Each night the Master chooses one of his four wives to spend the night with and the fortunate recipient of the Master’s fortune is honoured with a foot massage by one of the servants, while the red lanterns are lit in their quarter. However Songlian soon also meets the Master’s other three wives, each of them practised competitors for his attentions. The arrival of a new, young and pretty Fourth Mistress soon intensifies the rivalries and scheming of the other women, particularly the Third Mistress, a beautiful former opera singer.
More than just a beautifully composed and photographed film, Raise The Red Lantern is also much more than just a period piece about ancient customs, rituals and outdated laws such as the owning of concubines. While that way of life may no longer seem to be relevant in the modern world, the film clearly has a point to make about the role of women in modern Chinese society where education for women is still a luxury that many families cannot afford. These themes of the plight of women and peasants in modern Chinese society would be expanded on further by the director in other films like Ju Dou, To Live, Not One Less and The Story of Qiu Ju. It’s less overt here, and due to the restrictions that have led to many of Zhang’s films being banned in his home country, perhaps necessarily so. Here it appears to be critical of an old and decadent lifestyle, but at the same time he is being critical of similar restrictions and attitudes that still oppress Chinese people.
Whether the film is considered to have a political dimension or not, it certainly has plenty to say about the roles of men and women, and it is here in the realm of human interaction that the film most successfully achieves its aims. With tremendous force and at the same time delicacy, Zhang delineates the power battles between Songlian and the Master, the schemes and counter machinations the Fourth Mistress embarks upon with the other wives and her attempts to dominate her maid Yan’er – a girl every bit as proud and headstrong as herself. The emotional charge of these events is, as I indicated earlier, perfectly complemented and enhanced by the stunning photography and set designs.
What raises Raise The Red Lantern to the level of greatness however is the performance of Gong Li. With incredible precision, she captures the entire character of Songlian in the opening couple of minutes of the film, looking directly at the camera as she expresses her intentions to her stepmother. In her expression, tone of voice and gestures in one single shot that culminates with the rolling of tears down her face, can be read her disappointment at the direction her life has taken and her acceptance of the wishes of her stepmother, yet her headstrong determination not to be defeated, defiantly challenging her stepmother by agreeing to marry, but only on her terms. This epitomises her attitude throughout the rest of the film and dictates the course of events that are to follow. If you can, try not to be overly distracted by the subtitles and watch Gong Li’s performance throughout the film. It’s something quite incredible.
There is a touch of soap-operatics and melodrama here to be sure - they are never far from the surface in Zhang Yimou’s films - but the director keeps those elements under control, allowing the sets, the colours, the lighting and most importantly Gong Li, to convey with restraint the more florid undercurrents of the source material.
Raise The Red Lantern is released in the Hong Kong by Era. The disc is in NTSC format and is not region coded.
As I have noted in my review, Raise The Red Lantern is a beautiful looking film, where the use of colour, brightness and tone is all-important in conveying a lot of the mood and meaning. It consequently needs a transfer which will support it, and thankfully, the Digitally Remastered Hong Kong release from Era goes some way towards achieving that. There is a slight flicker in brightness levels, and some minor refresh rate judder and stutter, leading to less than perfectly smooth movements and a hint of telecine wobble in the transfer. There is also a certain amount of grain in the print. These however are relatively minor issues considering how well the magnificent tones, lighting and colour of the film are handled over the course of the seasons in the golden sunsets, blue mornings and of course, the blazing red lanterns. There is detail, sharpness, clarity and accuracy of tone here, reasonably good shadow detail and depth in the blacks.
The audio track, retaining the original mix, is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. It’s generally very fine, with excellent stereo separation in the instrumentation of the Chinese music, holding reasonably clarity even on the higher pitches of Meishan’s opera singing pieces, with accuracy in reverb. There is a bit of underlying hiss and crackle, some sibilance and it does tend to get distorted when the loudness levels increase, but for the larger part of the film, this is an excellent representation of the original mix.
English subtitles are provided and are optional, using a white font. There are a few spelling errors and a few sentences that don’t quite make sense, but overall it is fine.
The only extra features on this release are the Chinese Theatrical Trailer (3:24), presented anamorphically and subtitled, even this looks superb – but be warned, it contains a large number of spoilers. There is also a Photo Gallery of 15 fine promo stills for the film.
Comparison with US Razor Digital Entertainment R0 Edition
Razor’s US R0 Edition is pretty much a travesty. It’s not anamorphic, on a single-layer disc and, with a running time of 119 minutes, it appears to be a PAL to NTSC conversion from a mainland Chinese source. That source would appear also to be a cinema print, since it is littered with marks, tramline scratches and badly damaged frames that skip and jump. Without a frame of reference, the colour tones look adequate, but they are certainly too dark, the print moreover being soft, fuzzy and prone to colour bleeding at edges. The audio tracks include a pointless Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, but both are very rough. There are a few flaws in the English subtitles on the Era Hong Kong edition, but there is nothing quite as bad as the obvious errors that Razor did not bother to correct for a US release. There are no extra features on the US edition.
A full look at the US Edition from Razor can be found here.
Screenshot comparisons between both editions can be found below. The Hong Kong Era edition followed by the Razor US edition.
Looking back at Raise The Red Lantern in the light of Zhang Yimou’s later work, it really does seem to be the highlight of the director’s career, most successfully bringing together the political commentary of films like The Story of Qiu Ju and Not One Less, while being as visually splendid, poetic and restrained in its delicate portrayal of the complexities of human emotions and interaction as Hero. It’s a film that has long been in need of a good DVD release and this Digitally Remastered Hong Kong edition goes quite a bit of the way towards that, being a vast improvement over the poor US release from Razor. 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.