Seeing red and seeing double in Zhang Yimou’s sensuous and symmetrical Raise the Red Lantern


Zhang Yimou’s landmark 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern discusses themes of jealously, pragmatism and survival, set against a background of marital enslavement in China’s pre-Civl War Warlord era of the 1920s. The film’s story is told via a rich master’s fourth mistress Songlian, played by Gong Li.


Seeing red. The film’s trademark is its sumptuous red lighting, with red lanterns signposting the customs to which the master’s four mistresses are bound. The four mistresses are not allowed the privilege of names, only ordinal numbers such is their master’s control and order.

But the controlling red light is to be cherished. Songlian’s maid to the left of the bottom frame above is jealous of her superior’s status so at great peril steals the red light for herself. Control to be cherished, what a goal. We’re aware of the film’s historical setting and modern relevance (it was banned in China for some time) regardless of the director’s intent.


Seeing double. The film not only has control, but has order. Zhang Yimou and cinematographer Zhao Fei photograph scenes with rigorous symmetry seen in few films. Whenever an object is placed off centre, or should a character wander off centre, we’re uncomfortable with the disorder and await things to return to their default rigorously symmetrical state. Now we the viewers cherish order.


Counterbalance. The film has disorder as well as order and on a grand scale. Outside of the mistresses’ confines the palace has no sense of symmetry, dimension or context. The great unknown, like all outsides. In the bottom frame, Songlian meets the then unknown preceding third mistress. Later they become kindred, to set up the film’s terrible climax.


For the film’s terrible climax it moves from artificial sumptuous red to natural cold white. We’re back in disorder and await the rigorous symmetry which doesn’t return, one scene is even shot using a handheld camera. The natural cold white light is unforgiving and in sympathy, Songlian shall not be allowed to forgive herself.

red sorghum

Zhang Yimou and Gong Li have worked together before, in his first film as director and her first film as actor, the also beautiful and red Red Sorghum.

Reference: Raise the Red Lantern – Wikipedia

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