Nineteen-year-old Songlian (Gong Li) is facing a personal crossroads at the start of Zhang Yimou’s 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern. A university student in 1920s China, she’s been forced to leave school as a result of her father’s recent death and her family’s subsequent financial difficulties. With precious few options available to her, she’s decided to get married, and as far as she’s concerned, she may as well marry for money. “Marry a rich man and you’ll only be his concubine,” her stepmother warns her, but Songlian’s mind is made up. “Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that a woman’s fate?” she asks stoically — just before a single teardrop runs down her cheek.
Accordingly, she soon finds herself within the walls of an enormous compound that seems part-palace, part-fortress, the ancestral home of her new husband (Ma Jingwu). After deferential housekeeper Chen Baishun (Zhou Qi) directs her to her personal living quarters, she’s given a lavish treatment by several of the other staff members: a foot bath, a foot massage, new clothing, a new hairstyle. It’s all preparation for her wedding night with the man whom everyone refers to as “the Master,” but the night is cut short by a voice from outside. “Third Mistress is sick. She wants you to come,” says a servant. The Master would prefer to stay with Songlian, but the servant is insistent: “It’s an emergency. She said you must come.” At last, he goes, leaving his latest bride alone.
Songlian is, in fact, the fourth woman he’s married, and her three predecessors are all very much alive and part of the household. As she quickly discovers, the fact that she’s the newest and youngest addition to the collection doesn’t mean that the Master only has eyes for her. Every evening, all four women must stand outside their respective houses with their respective maids, waiting to find out which one of them the Master has selected as his companion for the night — not from the man himself, but from a servant who wordlessly sets up a red lantern at the chosen woman’s door. The others retire in disappointment; the victor gets her feet massaged, the rattle of the hammers reverberating throughout the compound and adding insult to injury for her rivals.
“If you can manage to have a foot massage every day, you’ll soon be running this household,” the Second Mistress, Zhuoyun (Cao Cuifen), tells Songlian. In truth, however, this power seems trivial, illusory. The woman currently in favor is allowed to order her favorite foods at mealtimes, she might be granted requests such as eating in her own room instead of dining with the others (though it goes against custom), and she gets to look down on everyone else, but with all of the women trying to please him and secure his approval, the Master is the true winner. Even the massage is really for his benefit, as he explains to Songlian on their first night together: “A woman’s feet are very important. When they feel comfortable, she is healthier and better able to serve her man.” He can be cruel and selfish too, going so far as to burn one of Songlian’s personal possessions because he suspects that it might be a gift from a boy back in her university days, and therefore a distraction from the Master himself.
In a striking stylistic choice, the Master’s face is never seen entirely clearly. He’s almost always shot from a distance, an indistinct figure, and even in the rare exceptions to this rule, he’s partially obscured by translucent fabric or a pillow. His looks are irrelevant; so, to some degree, is the man in and of himself. What matters are his power, wealth and position, his birthright rather than anything he achieved through his own efforts or merit.
This impersonal quality extends to the women, who are generally referred to as First Mistress, Second Mistress and so on, not by their names. Once they join the household, it doesn’t matter that Songlian has attended a university or that Meishan (He Saifei), the Third Mistress, is a talented opera singer, except insofar as those qualities can please the Master. (“Educated women are different,” he says after carefully studying Songlian’s profile. “Now undress and get into bed.”) Their lives are no longer their own, not as they used to be. Robbed of meaning and any other purpose or goal, it’s no surprise that they end up throwing all of their energy into winning the Master’s favor, bringing out the worst in themselves in the process: lying, scheming, stabbing one another in the back.
Defeat is inevitable, though, in the long run if not on a nightly basis. The First Mistress (Jin Shuyuan), who appears old enough to be Songlian’s mother (at the very least), never sees the lantern set in front of her door anymore. She and the Master may be the same age, but he remains desirable by virtue of his position; she’s been superseded by newer models. (Rather than trying to one-up the others, it seems that she’s more or less resigned to her situation. Asked her opinion about Songlian’s latest maneuver, she replies, “What do I matter? I’m just an old woman.”) Aging isn’t the only threat. “You’re new here, and the Master isn’t tired of you yet,” Meishan tells Songlian. “But if you don’t give him a son, you’re in for some hard times.” Zhuoyun knows that well. “How useless! I only have a daughter,” she says — right in front of her little girl.
Women are necessary to the Master, but they don’t count for much except as they relate to him, and the massive walls and buildings of his compound underline their insignificance. Even the Master himself isn’t completely free, bound as he is by custom and the need to uphold his family’s good name. (He sends an ill maid to the hospital and is willing to pay any amount for her medicine because otherwise “people will say we let our servants die.”) “Light the lanterns, blow out the lanterns, cover the lanterns — what do I care?” Songlian muses. “What do people amount to in this house? They’re like cats, dogs or rats, but certainly not like people.”
This post is part of the Colours Blogathon, hosted by Thoughts All Sorts. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.