Raise The Red Lantern Review

Zhang Yimou’s greatest filmmaking achievement from 1991 is every bit as visually stunning as his martial arts epic ‘Hero’, but its long-awaited DVD release in the USA is unfortunately not up to the quality of the film. Noel Megahey reviews the US Region 0 release courtesy of DVD Pacific.

Zhang Yimou’s Raise The Red Lantern is simply one of the most elegantly staged, perfectly lit and beautifully photographed films ever made. Every scene is meticulously framed and composed, with every single frame worthy of being hung in a picture gallery. But it is more than just a series of pretty pictures. Every image tells its own story, expressing mood, character and detail through the costumes, the set designs, the colours and the lighting. Even though the film, once past the introduction, doesn’t leave the enclosed confines of a single household, even the heat, rain and snow of the passing seasons each impress their own character onto the turbulent machinations and events that go on there.

Forced by her stepmother to give up her studies at university, a young 19 year-old girl Songlian (Gong Li) agrees to take a husband – but on her own terms. If she must marry, she wants to marry a rich man. Thus Songlian becomes a concubine as the Fourth Mistress of the rich Master of the Chen household. She is given her own maid, Yang, and soon learns the ancient customs and rituals of the household. Each night the Master chooses one of his four wives to spend the night with and the fortunate recipient of the Master’s fortune is honoured with a foot massage by one of the servants, while the red lanterns are lit in their quarter. However Songlian soon also meets the Master’s other three wives, each of them practised competitors for his attentions. The arrival of a new, young and pretty Fourth Mistress soon intensifies the rivalries and scheming of the other women, particularly the Third Mistress, a beautiful former opera singer.

The themes and treatment of Raise The Red Lantern closely follow Zhang’s previous film Ju Dou (1990), but everything from the script, to the performances and the cinematography is raised to a higher level of artistry. More than just a beautifully composed and photographed film, Raise The Red Lantern is also much more than just a period piece about ancient customs, rituals and outdated laws such as the owning of concubines. While that way of life may no longer seem to be relevant in the modern world, the film clearly has a point to make about the role of women in modern Chinese society where education for women is still a luxury that many families cannot afford and marriage is consequently their only career option. These themes of the plight of women and peasants in modern Chinese society would be expanded on further by the director in other films like To Live, Not One Less and The Story of Qiu Ju. Perhaps due to the restrictions that have led to many of Zhang’s films being banned in his home country – Ju Dou with an essentially similar subject failed to pass the Chinese censor the previous year – those themes are perhaps necessarily less overt here. It’s a restriction that works towards the film’s advantage, giving it a degree of subtlety that was not evident in Ju Dou, appearing to be critical of an old and decadent lifestyle, but at the same time being critical of similar restrictions and attitudes that still oppress Chinese women.

Whether the film is considered to have a political dimension or not, it certainly has plenty to say about the roles of men and women, and it is here in the realm of human interaction that the film most successfully achieves its aims. With tremendous force and at the same time delicacy, Zhang delineates the power battles between Songlian and the Master, the schemes and counter machinations the Fourth Mistress embarks upon with the other wives and her attempts to dominate her maid Yang – a girl every bit as proud and headstrong as herself. The emotional charge of these events is, as I indicated earlier, perfectly complemented and enhanced by the stunning photography and set designs.

What raises Raise The Red Lantern to the level of greatness however is the performance of Gong Li. With incredible precision, she captures the entire character of Songlian in the opening couple of minutes of the film, looking directly at the camera as she expresses her intentions to her stepmother. In her expression, tone of voice and gestures in one single shot that culminates with the rolling of tears down her face, can be read her disappointment at the direction her life has taken and her acceptance of the wishes of her stepmother, yet her headstrong determination not to be defeated, defiantly challenging her stepmother by agreeing to marry, but only on her terms. This epitomises her attitude throughout the rest of the film and dictates the course of events that are to follow. If you can, try not to be overly distracted by the subtitles and watch Gong Li’s performance throughout the film. It’s something quite incredible.

There is a touch of soap-operatics and melodrama here to be sure – they are never far from the surface in Zhang Yimou’s films – but the director keeps those elements under control, allowing the sets, the colours, the lighting and most importantly Gong Li, to convey with restraint the more florid undercurrents of the source material.

Raise The Red Lantern is released in the United States by Razor Digital Entertainment. The disc is in NTSC format and is not region coded.

The cover of the DVD states a 2.35:1 widescreen transfer for the film, but it is actually presented correctly in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but not anamorphically enhanced. The overall impression of the transfer is that it is colourful, but dark. The red tones – the most essential element of the film’s colour scheme – are bright and deep and show reasonable detail without appearing oversaturated. It’s the darkness and contrast however that prevent the colour tones from looking as accurate as they should, the transfer clearly being taken from a cinema print of the film. The numerous marks on the print confirm this impression, and when I say numerous, I mean the print is riddled with damage in the form of scratches, marks, dustspots and tramlines that are evident almost throughout, but are particularly troublesome at the start and end of reels. Occasionally at these points there are some larger problems, black marks marring the image and frames occasionally skipping or jumping. This alone makes the transfer simply unacceptable, but on top of this, the image is rather soft and fuzzy, with colour bleeding and haloing visible at edges. Presented merely on a single-layer disc, movement artefacts and interlacing are sometimes visible – the running time would also suggest a PAL to NTSC transfer – but there is not a great deal of movement in the film. Nevertheless, the image remains stable with few other issues of compression artefacts and detail is adequate – but only just – and the film doesn’t suffer overly from the poor quality of the print. At least it is not unwatchable as a way to just view the film, and it is certainly slightly better than the Razor edition of Ju Dou, released alongside this – but a film that looks as good as Raise The Red Lantern deserves much better than this. The Hong Kong DVD Edition gives a much better indication of how good the film ought to look. A comparison and full review of that DVD can be found here

Similarly, the audio presentation of the film is not particularly good, but neither is it particularly poor. It’s strong and relatively clear, but has an underlying roughness and some harsh sibilance. There is a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 mixes. The 2.0 mix would appear to be the original soundtrack, the 5.1 a remix. The surround mix consequently sounds rather echoing, but some might find it acceptable.

English subtitles are optional. The dialogue appears both inside the picture frame and in the border below, so the image cannot be zoomed. Considering the issues with the transfer, enlarging the image would hardly be a good idea. Traditional and Simplified Chinese subtitles are also included suggesting that this is a port of an Asian DVD edition of the film. The spelling errors and dropping of occasional words would seem to bear this out. Mostly it is adequate, but errors like the repeated use of “savant” for “servant” could become irritating. The worst error I came across was the line “Don’t be so gloomy” (I presume) being translated in the English subtitles as “Don’t be so groovy”. This is really poor and should really have been corrected before being released by a US DVD company.

There are no extra features on the DVD.

Looking back at Raise The Red Lantern in the light of Zhang Yimou’s later work, it really does seem to be the highlight of the director’s career, most successfully bringing together the political commentary of films like The Story of Qiu Ju and Not One Less, while being as visually splendid, poetic and restrained in its delicate portrayal of the complexities of human emotions and interaction as Hero. It’s a film that has long been in need of a good DVD release and unfortunately, this US release from Razor is not it. Personally, I thought the sheer magnificence of the film and Gong Li’s superb performance are still no less evident and this DVD release is just about watchable as a viewing experience of Raise The Red Lantern – but no more than that. Many other viewers will find this DVD release simply intolerable.

(Update: A better edition of the film is now available on DVD from Era in Hong Kong. A review and comparison of the two editions can be found here.)


Updated: Mar 09, 2006

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