China in the 1920's. After her father's death, nineteen year old Songlian is forced to marry Chen Zuoqian…
Release Year: 1991
Rating: 8.2/10 (12,365 voted)
Stars: Li Gong, Jingwu Ma, Saifei He
China in the 1920's. After her father's death, nineteen year old Songlian is forced to marry Chen Zuoqian, the lord of a powerful family. Fifty year old Chen has already three wives, each of them living in separate houses within the great castle. The competition between the wives is tough, as their master's attention carries power, status and privilege. Each night Chen must decide with which wife to spend the night and a red lantern is lit in front of the house of his choice. And each wife schemes and plots to make sure it's hers. However, things get out of hand…
Writers: Su Tong, Ni Zhen
Meishan (Third Wife)
Zhuoyan (Second Wife)
Yuru (First Wife)
China, 1920. One master, four wives.
Release Date: 20 December 1991
Did You Know?
Banned in China for a short time in the early 1990s.
The Third Concubine:
Good or bad, it's all playacting. If you act well, you can fool other people; if you do it badly, you can only fool yourself, and when you can't even fool yourself, you just can fool the ghosts.
Brutal politics in a marriage of concubines
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut
to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it
Raise the Red Lantern is one of the most extraordinarily beautiful
movies I have ever seen. The sets are exquisite tableaux carefully
arranged, decorated and framed, and then shot from an attractive angle.
The scene as they drag the third mistress, kicking and screaming to the
tower of death, with the snow falling so peacefully onto the rooftops
was chilling in its effect. The startling blaze of color, light and
detail within the houses set against the drab simplicity of the
courtyards, continually provided a contrast between life within the
protection and at the favor of the master, and life without. This
dichotomy is symbolized in the vibrant red lamps and the somber blue
hue of the lamps when they are covered. In this manner, the mistresses
are controlled. I was also struck by the sonorous beauty of the
accompanying Chinese music.
But more compelling than the beauty of the film is the story Director
Zhang Yimou tells, a tale of paternity and imperious privilege set in
early twentieth century China. He begins with the newly arrived fourth
mistress, 19-year-old Songlian, a university student who, because of
the death of her father, is forced to quit school. She chooses to marry
a man of wealth. She is warned by her stepmother that she will be a
concubine. She replies, isn't that our fate? Her cynicism and then her
robust energy in seeking her ascendancy over the other sisters engages
us and we identify with her struggle.
What is extraordinary about Zhang's direction is how easily and
naturally the personalities of the characters are revealed. The first
mistress ("big sister") is too old to be of any sexual interest to the
master, yet she is the mother of the eldest son. The second mistress,
who has given the master only a daughter, still dreams of having a son.
Her devious schemes and plots are hidden by smiles and fake good will
toward her sisters. The third mistress, an opera singer still vibrant
and beautiful (in a fascinating performance by the intriguing Caifei
He), uses her allure in vying for the master's attention. Songlian, in
spite of herself, finds herself caught up in the competition with the
Gong Li, who plays Songlian, is very beautiful with a strength of
character that one quite naturally admires. She has the gift, as does,
for example, Julia Roberts, of being able to express a wide range of
emotion with just a glance of her very expressive face.
Serving as a foil to the mistresses, and perhaps as the most poignant
victim of the concubine system, is the servant girl Yan'er, played with
a compelling veracity by Kong Lin. She is occasionally (how shall I say
this for Amazon?) "touched," to use Songlian's term, by the master, and
so she dreamed of being the fourth mistress. But when the fourth
mistress arrives, her dreams are shattered, and in her jealousy she
hates Songlian and plots against her. One of the most memorable scenes
in the movie is when Songlian, thinking Yan'er has stolen her flute,
forces open the servant girl's room and finds it flooded with…. Well,
you should see.
Note well that the master is only hazily observed. He is a personage, a
man of wealth. That is enough to know about him. He is as
interchangeable as the harem masters on a beach of elephant seals. But
because he has wealth, he can engage concubines who must compete with
one another through him to find their station in life. One gets a sense
of what it might be like in the harem system practiced by gorillas and
the sheiks and warlords of old. One pleases the master not because one
loves the master (although one does of course because humans tend to
love their masters) but because in pleasing the master one rises above
the others. Thus the triumphant call, "Light the lanterns in the third
Most people no doubt lament the life of the mistresses. Yet women in
poor places may wish such a life upon themselves. But concubines are
just prostitutes, really, one might say, trapped by a system of male
privilege. But I would remind those who see only that, that for every
wife the "master" has, that is one wife another man will not have. The
system does NOT favor males. It favors wealth and privilege. In such a
system there are many men without wives, fomenting unrest, which is why
modern states forbid polygamy.
What does a man do with the capital he accumulates or inherits? If the
system allows, he spends it on women and the assurance of his
paternity. And why is that possible? Because many women–Songlian is
our example–would rather be the fourth wife of a rich man than the
first and only wife of a poor man. Many women would rather be used by a
man of wealth than rule the household of a nerd. This is the way humans
are, and any sexist interpretation of this movie misses this truth.
The real horror depicted here, though, is in the brutality used to
maintain the system, not in the polygamy itself. The women who follow
the rules and beget the master's children, especially if they are sons,
enjoy a pampered and secure existence Those who do not are dealt with
severely, branded as mad, or even murdered. Note the similar experience
of the wives of Henry VIII, for example, within the English system of
This is a great movie, like a timeless novel fully realized, directed
by a visual genius, from a script of great psychological power. Don't
miss this one. It's one of the best ever made.