Raise the Red Lantern Review

The Film

Raise the Red Lantern is a chilling denunciation of oppression in all its forms. The film shows how a patriarch's power is maintained by the people he has control over through their efforts to gain a little of that power themselves. Yimou's film shows what will happen to those who rebel against the system, and what monsters those who profit from it will become through their complicity. All who come into contact with this elegant tyranny are destroyed by it, unless they accept their position as collaborator or concubine. The kindest, the brightest, and the most beautiful will learn the same lesson of submission.
We begin with Songlian, a nineteen year old woman who finds her University education ended because of the early death of her father. Songlian is browbeaten into marriage by her mother and makes the decision that she will marry a rich man. Her mother advises her against this as this will only make her a "concubine", still Songlian becomes the fourth wife of a wealthy man. Leaving the countryside she travels to her new husband's majestic home and finds herself part of the family traditions of marriage and favour. She is given a servant and her own annexe where she must wait for her husband's bidding. Before his visits, she is treated to pampering and her favoured status is signified by the lighting of lanterns around her quarters. The three other wives are competitive for this pampering and for the benefits that status gives them, and underneath the traditions of the wealthy family lies the battle for their master's attention. The first wife is older and resigned to her place as the mother of the master's heir, the second wife is an arch schemer, and the third wife is a once celebrated opera singer. Songlian learns that to be pregnant will improve her position, but her schemes fail and lead to exile in the master's household. In her loneliness, she drinks to excess and she reveals a secret that will truly expose how the master keeps his power.
Raise the Red Lantern focuses on the mechanics of oppression through the examples of the four wives, and particularly Songlian. Songlian learns that naivety will not be respected in the household she first joins, and that beneath the appearances of kindness lie the worst of enemies. At first, she is prey to the games that her fellow wives play with the capricious third wife's fake illnesses and anti-social singing, and more importantly the poisonous games of the second wife. She decides to use her intelligence to outplay the others, but her own arrogance proves her own downfall and that of others. Each of the wives deals with their subjected status of being a concubine in different ways; Songlian tries to rebel and to play politics, the first wife is resigned to her redundancy, the second wife has become a collaborator against her fellow women, and the third wife has taken a lover. In their various strategies, the women reinforce the patriarchy that keeps them subjugated, and for all their wiles they will only end up as cruel, mad, or dead.
Gong Li makes Songlian as sympathetic as is possible given the consequences of some of her actions, and the largely female cast around her are clever in creating realistic personalities rather than monsters. Yimou manages the story on a number of levels, superficially this is a film about patriarchy, but this is also a film about responding to oppression of all kinds. Yimou is careful to keep the pre-Communist context of the story but this does not exclude the subtler modern day analogy. Yimou's general rejection of social control is the dominant message of this film and as much as the wives and their husband can be seen as a metaphor for exploitation, it can also be seen as a condemnation of authoritarianism and how that makes its subjects behave. This broader reading led to the film being banned from exhibition in China when it was first released.

Superbly shot, written, and acted, Raise the Red Lantern is a key film in Chinese cinema as a mature masterpiece of the fifth generation of film-makers. It is a brave film full of integrity and care and it confirmed the international reputation of Yimou despite the concerns of his own government. Raise the Red Lantern is one of the best films of the last twenty years.

The Disc

The print and transfer here are very similar to the existing R3 disc from New Era which Noel reviewed here. I have deliberately chosen similar screenshots for this review so you can compare the two discs but I would say that the quality of the R3 disc is exceeded here with the overall image much more natural. There is a marginal amount of softness which may be because of the absence of edge enhancement on this transfer. This is a world away from the previous R1 disc from Razor and MGM have done a good job in leaving the elements with a natural, rather than boosted, look in terms of colours or contrast. The film is presented with a surround mix of the original audio which is welcome especially with the excellent soundtrack and the added atmosphere this gives in the scenes emphasising the isolation of Songlian and the scale of the setting. The audio is clear and without imperfections from mastering or source. The removeable English subs come in two versions, a straight translation and hard of hearing options, and these are as good a quality as this film has had on DVD in terms of their English.

This dual layer disc uses 95% of the capacity and contains no extras, consequently it is hard to imagine a transfer with a higher bitrate than this.


A superb film that has finally got an R1 treatment it deserves. The subtitles on this release will be an improvement on the New Era disc and the relatively inexpensive price will make it a safe purchase for newbies and those wanting to upgrade. Some extras would have been nice, but for English speaking fans of the film this disc is the clear choice for a purchase.

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