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‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 08, 1992

As a filmmaker, Chinese director Zhang Yimou is a peculiar combination of muckraker and aesthete. In his previous film, "Ju Dou," and his latest, "Raise the Red Lantern," he has staked out the oppression of women in pre-revolutionary times as his special province. His mission in these films, and to some extent in "Red Sorghum" too, has been to rip back the curtain of silence and reveal China's ugly cultural secret: In the past, women were bought and sold, used for slave labor, abused and even murdered.

As a member of the so-called "Fifth Generation" of filmmakers to graduate from the Beijing Film Academy, Yimou's thematic agenda is social. But as a former cinematographer, his artistic preoccupations are more formal, more painterly; he's obsessed with the fragile play of symmetries, with composition, color and design.

In this last regard, he is virtually without equal. His movies are divine items, richly hued, sumptuously textured, musically paced objects of desire. The silken, erotic flow to his imagery is like a sweet kiss to the eyes. But, as "Raise the Red Lantern" demonstrates, the two sides of Yimou's aesthetic nature aren't always in accord. Nor is he always able to strike a balance between these interests and the structural demands of his story. With the exception of "Ju Dou," which was driven by a passionate sexual engine, his dramatic muscles seem spindly and underdeveloped. In "Raise the Red Lantern," the director displays his usual gift for striking visual metaphors, but here they seem to exist in stasis. His painter's eye has taken over.

His material here isn't without incident; it's a satisfying sense of tension that's missing. Set in Northern China during the 1920s, "Red Lantern" describes the life of Songlian (Gong Li), who, despite her university training, at 19 becomes the fourth wife of the master of the wealthy Chen family. Yimou's goal in telling her story is to expose the patterns of exploitation and intrigue within the Chen household, where the four wives are forced to compete for their husband's favor. The hierarchy of power within the compound is sexually determined. When the master sleeps with one of the wives, the red lanterns are lit at her house, and for as long as she remains his partner, the rule of the roost is hers, right down to what is served for dinner at the family table.

During the first stage of the film, Songlian -- being the newcomer -- is the master's favorite. But conflicts arise when the third wife, a glamorous former opera star named Meishan (He Caifei), launches an offensive to win back her dominant place in the pecking order. The second wife, Zhuoyun (Cao Cuifeng), becomes Songlian's confidante, generously supplying her with tactical strategies against Meishan. Soon, though, Songlian discovers that Zhuoyun's motives aren't as selfless as they seem, and that she has been conspiring with Songlian's maid to undermine both her and Meishan.

Yimou lays out these conflicts very cleanly and precisely, but they never expand to take on the social implications the director had hoped for. Gong Li, who also starred in "Ju Dou" and "Red Sorghum," is a subtle, commanding actress, and she gives Songlian a streak of stubborn, regal pride. But, psychologically, the character always remains at a distance, and, as a result, the movie seems oddly vacant at its center. As gorgeous as it is, "Raise the Red Lantern" never achieves any momentum or weight. Even when Songlian discovers a secret tower used to keep the wives in line, the story never amounts to much more than a rather tepid Chinese rendition of "The Women."

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