Saturday, January 31, 2009

Raise the Red Lantern

"Raise the Red Lantern" aka "Da hong deng long gao gao gua" 大紅燈籠高高掛 (Yimou Zhang, 1991) Typically gorgeous Zhang Yimou film, although at this early stage with a very limited budget. But that doesn't limit his imagination. The film is staged (with the exception of a prologue) in an clutch of houses, which are the enclave for The Four Mistresses of The Master. Wife #4 Songlian (Li Gong) was a college student who dropped out when her father died, and now is the new bride, the youngest and most frequenly sought by The Master for her favors. Every night is a competition among the wives as the one for whom the red lanterns are raised receives special treatment. This leads to duplicity and deception and Songlian is caught in the middle and learns cunning when dealing with the outwardly polite, but squabbling mistresses.

The compositions and colors are as sumptuous as one has come to expect from Zhang, but his manipulation of light is just as impressive, the film descending into murky twilight as the bitter consequences of the Mistress' actions become apparent, and the psychological wounds tear at the women. Although the acting is by and large austere, the director keeps the emotions brewing through his subtle manipulation and triangulation of passed looks and simmering reactions. Very early in his career, it shows Yimou Zhang as a master of formal cinema, and capable of great effect with merely actors and a limited location. As he embraced new technology and expanded his horizons, his cinema would explode. with possibilties. He is one of the few directors whose work I always anticipate.

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