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‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 08, 1992

Color isn't just important to Zhang Yimou. It's his leading lady. In "Raise the Red Lantern," the Chinese director selects from a stirring palette of glowing reds, subtle yellows and twilight grays. There isn't an arbitrary hue in the movie. In purely aesthetic terms, "Raise the Red Lantern" is breathtaking.

Whether color -- and other aesthetics -- can carry an entire picture has been raised before in connection with Zhang's work (which includes "Red Sorghum" and "Ju Dou"). In "Lantern" he comes close to pulling it off. Passion for the spectrum (particularly the redder end) suffuses -- and completely informs -- this tale of a power struggle in 1920s China. Chief among things vermilion are the titular lanterns. In this movie, they represent the pinnacle of power.

When Gong Li (Zhang's other regular leading lady) becomes the fourth bride of an aging, wealthy patriarch, she enters a forbidding, repressive world. Cloistered in her own quarters with a personal servant, she undergoes a series of daily rituals. She's also forced into bitter rivalry with the three other wives.

When the "master" makes his sexual selection for the evening, the chosen wife enjoys this household's equivalent of a fanfare. Servants hang and illuminate a parade of red lanterns leading up to her bedroom doorway. The bedroom is similarly decorated. Her feet are bathed, then therapeutically rapped with wooden paddles.

Newest (and youngest) arrival Gong is initially chosen over the other wives for the old man's favors. Resolving to maintain her edge, she assesses the lay of the land. The first wife, an aging woman, seems to be little trouble. But the other two -- outgoing, friendly Cao Cuifeng and erstwhile opera singer He Caifei -- pose a greater threat. Gong uses every weapon she can muster, from bedroom petulance to outright lying. When she discovers treachery among her rivals, she exacts bitter revenge.

There's an appropriately stifling quality to the movie. In this world of subtle nuance and charade, everything has weighty, political underpinnings. The master's favorite mistress of the night decides on the household's meal of the day -- which her opponents are obliged to eat. When Gong discovers red lanterns in her maid's bedroom, it's a flagrant breach of the master's regulations; it also bodes ill for the servant (Kong Lin).

Zhang furthers the rarefied atmosphere with formal, visual compositions. The camera looks at its subject head-on, with few gimmicks. It shows the outside of the women's bedroom doors from the same position. It watches its characters through the confining frames of doorways and archways. It seldom shows the sky above -- or the world outside -- this house.

Throughout her marital ordeal, Gong remains determined and aloof. In spite of her luminous beauty, she's not appealing to us -- except as an aggrieved victim. She's variously haughty, rash, jealous and petty -- an agent of revenge rather than a person of estimable quality. On the rare occasions when solitary tears slide down her cheeks, it's a shock to see so heartfelt and tender a reaction.

At one triumphant point, Gong has won the master's favor. She's perched regally on her bed behind a muslinlike bed drape. She's bathed in the pinkish glow of the abundant lanterns. Women's choral voices serenade her on the soundtrack. She's the reigning monarch of the moment, reveling in colorful exultation. Toward the end of the movie, when she experiences a final emotional resolution, those reds return with harsher import. If by then you're not enamored with the cold road the movie has taken, there's still something appealing about the tints and tones that have lit the way. In their tonal simplicity, they often speak eloquently for those wrapped-up emotions.

RAISE THE RED LANTERN (PG) — In Mandarin Chinese with subtitles.

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