Raise the Red Lantern is a Chinese language film directed by Zhang Yimou. Although adapted from Su Tong’s novel, Wives and Concubines (1990), the film itself is renowned for its visually striking effects. A moving and heart-wrenching narrative runs through a dreamlike setting. It is set in an enormous mansion of a wealthy man, which has rooms allocated for each of his wives. Through the protagonist, Songlian, who happens to become the fourth wife/mistress of this man, one gets to witness the gradual succession of events.
Tearing the veil of Raise the Red Lantern
Ancestral customs govern the household of the wealthy Master. Apart from making the Master the sole functioning authority, they also grant him a near-divine essence. An instance would be the red lanterns themselves, which are lit in the respective wife’s house whom the Master visits. When Songlian is caught playing her prank, the covering of her lanterns signifies the denial of the presence of Master to her; quite like the presence of the Sun whose rays grant life.
Yet, in this household governed by rules, human conflict is ever-present. The Master bitterly vents out about one of his wives to another, the mistresses hold envy amongst themselves, and as for their expression of resentment towards their mutual husband, they have nothing else to resort to except temporary anger which the Master views as “tantrums”.
The conflict, even if at an individual level, is potent enough to plague relationships in the household community. One would only need to take a look at what undergoes between Songlian and her servant, Yan’er, to realize the impact individual conflicts can have. The members of the household exist in an ongoing conflict; and despite Songlian‘s remarks about the difference between maids and mistresses, there underlies a universal human principle governing each of these different individuals.
The emergence of conflict in Raise the Red Lantern
It is in the nature of the conflicts depicted in Raise the Red Lantern to begin at a slow pace and eventually acquire frightening proportions. Moreover, the conflicts majorly locate themselves in household matters which have as their backdrop the untamed human emotions. This makes them believable affairs that have all probability of occurrence.
One of the main reasons that govern such conflicts is the customs’ less favorable aspects reserved for the mistresses themselves. To cite an example would be the Master’s illicit affairs, compared to the death penalty reserved for a wife found doing so. Clearly, the wives lack freedom. The ancestral laws bind every new wife that finds their place in the mansion’s household; and as the first mistress remarked, it is only a matter of time for a wife to become used to them.
The mesmerizing beauty of the mansion garbs underneath itself hidden secrets, and it does not take Songlian long to discover them. Eventually, she comes to know of the deaths that wives of previous generations had to embrace due to their misconducts. However, such treatment, as Songlian’s mother already told her, is the consequence of marrying a rich man.
In subjugation, a will to power
The subject of conflict here is important because alongside conflict, rides power; a power that is the current keeping the mansion’s household alive.
Within the boundaries of the mansion, great power subjugates the human mind. They strive to create an individual dominion amongst those equally subjugated. One strives to stay a step ahead of another. The inescapable condition of the mistresses makes them prey to such circumstances. Only the acceptance of fate ensures stable longevity, and perhaps wisdom, as shown by the first and the eldest mistress. As for the youngest wives, there is still a will to rebel -a will to power.
The circulation and transfer of power from one wife to another are what largely constitutes Raise the Red Lantern, if not also their individual struggles. The supreme power rests with the Master, towards whom the custom extends its many privileges. It is not that the wives are excluded from privileges, but those only come packed with the Master’s own moods and temperaments. The Master, thus, is a walking powerhouse, pleasing whom is necessary to acquire certain comforts and stature. With such stature, comes power. Only the successful lurer of the Master emerges victorious. The household custom also ensures this transfer of power by allowing the victor to choose the meal menu.
Power struggle in Raise the Red Lantern
Conflict does not exhibit itself only through events taking place between the mistresses. The desire for power ranges also to the ones lesser favorable. The initial treatment of red lanterns and the sensuous foot massages are comforts frequently reserved for the youngest mistress, given the Master’s carnal hunger. However, this comfort is something that does not go unnoticed by those who are in the prime of their youth. Only, unfortunately, they are in a position to give no competition to those whom they serve -the mistresses. Yet, the servant Yan’er neither ever gives up on her dream of acquiring a status at par with her mistress, Songlian, nor does she not remain from being an important agent of conflict.
Unlike Meishan, who could interrupt the Master during his time with Songlian, Yan’er could acquire the Master’s company only illicitly. Yet, this affair, although granting Yan’er the proximity of the Master, never does ensure her the other privileges bestowed exclusively upon the mistresses. However, this does not stop Yan’er. Her proximity with the higher power/authority already threatens the position of the mistresses as the Master’s playthings. It only takes her bold imitation of putting up the glowing red symbol of stature in her room to complete a full circle. The most affected is Songlian; she even becomes agonized following the servant’s absence.
The lotus of rebellion birthing out of the mud of alienation
Raise the Red Lantern is significant in its depiction of a power struggle between the mistresses resulting from the customs that subjugate them. The setting of the mansion, with its pleasant beauty and glorious comforts, only becomes a claustrophobic entrapment as the movie progresses, beyond whose walls one cannot escape. Life, in that mansion, has to be accepted the way it is. Any attempt of neglect or straying off from the customary beliefs only results in alienation. Yet, not everyone can be as readily accepted as the first mistress. In some, the fire burns bright.
Interestingly, one’s want for power through earning the Master’s favor does not necessarily ensure one’s satisfaction. For, the frequent summoning of the Master does not necessarily hint toward any strong sense of intimacy. The sense of rebellion, instead, may still likely triumph, as is evident from Meishan’s regular summoning of the Master and her romantic affair.
This hints toward an alienation that most likely lurks throughout the mansion, sparing not even the Master himself. It is not quite difficult for him to give up altogether on his aging wives, or harshly remark on the actions of a mistress even after a long romantic session. Although he may despise and never attend to them, he never sets them free. Any kindness, if shown, is only to validate stature.
As for Meishan, her romantic affair with the doctor quite often transferred her to her days of glorious past. Her lover admired her opera singing, and Meishan found in her respect for her talent, that in the mansion she only has to confine within herself; she rehearses in isolation, probably barred from performances anymore. Her sense of rebellion is against the lurking alienation that has kept her suppressed. It has ranged to the point where, for her, it is no longer bearable.
Of failure in rebellion
Songlian is an educated girl who finds her way into the rich household through marriage, following her father’s death. Although attempting to adapt to the customs and the prevalent power struggle, she loses her sense of direction. Songlian yearns for the Master’s favor and wishes to be a contributor to the household by birthing an heir. However, her hunger for power is stronger. Caught in the meshes of the power struggle that undergoes in the household, she loses the Master’s favor long before she could be an able contributor. Falling prey to the adversities of the power struggle, she can only condemn it.
Moreover, she also could not find success in confessing her desire for Feipu, the first mistress’s son. Undoubtedly, Feipu is a sculpture of the same customary clay; he would rather refuge in asserting Songlian crazy than sleep with her. As a result, the adolescent Songlian grows terribly alone. Her state is perhaps the perfect evidence of alienation.
Aside from the strict customs, her state also is a result of Songlian‘s own contributions. Losing her sense of direction both while reveling in power and withering powerlessly, she frames everyone whom she perceives making any attempt to escape the mansion’s oppression. There is a spark of rebellion in Songlian, like Yan’er and Meishan; but her jealousy gives way to eliminating what she perceives as competitors to her own sorry state. This perception makes her refuse the very hand of friendship that Songlian could have acquired by withholding the secrets of her servant and fellow mistress. Ironically, by the end, Songlian is quite like a joint manifestation of both. Outcasted, she keeps the red lanterns forever lit, like Yan’er had done in her room; while roaming about in Meishan’s theatrically decorated house, haunted by her song.
Raise the Red Lantern is a naked display of the human dilemma that remains despite attempts to organize. No matter the tradition or how they choose to define rebellious individuals, the sense of rebellion itself results from the striving of emotions. These emotions range against captivity. No matter how beautiful or suppressive the captivity may appear, the human mind, only sometimes, may not submit to pleasure and fear at the expense of freedom.
Raise the Red Lantern is a depiction of this want for freedom -the human principle to seek control of their own lives- taken to extremes. It does not matter if, in the larger timeframe, it remains forgotten. The taste of forbidden pleasures is content enough, no matter the consequences.