The Reeler

Reviews

March 1, 2007

Raise the Red Lantern

Vintage Zhang revival a reminder of how much has changed in 16 years

The timing of the Film Forum's revival of Raise The Red Lantern may seem odd (come celebrate its 16th anniversary!), but there's probably never been a more urgent time to re-evaluate the work of Zhang Yimou. Once China's premiere filmmaker, Zhang was a political and aesthetic cause célèbre, with nearly every film of his banned for indeterminate lengths of time for equally vague reasons; the government could tell there was some kind of attack contained within, but could never determine its exact nature. Now, with critical attention to his work decreasing and turning to sixth generation directors like Jia Zhangke (whose severity makes Zhang look frivolous), Zhang can concentrate on coordinating the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing; paying an official favor to the state would once have seemed unthinkable, but now isn’t even terribly surprising.

The question of whether or not Zhang has sold out to the censors has preoccupied normally apolitical cinéastes back as far as The Story Of Qiu Ju, Zhang's 1992 follow-up to Lantern, in which a deglamorized Gong Li seeks out every possible government official in the hierarchy, demanding official redress of a wrongdoing. "Many see this shift from mythic to mass filmmaking as Zhang's capitulation to Party authorities and some trace a decline in his subsequent work," notes Mary Farquhar in her appraisal of Zhang's career, yet that's nothing compared to the radical head-spinning that came after Hero and House Of Flying Daggers re-invented Zhang as a peddler of gorgeous, if mindless, wuxia spectacles. After a decade-plus of political struggle, it seemed fair enough that Zhang might want to pursue disinterested aesthetics and not argue over every film; as long as the pretty fights kept coming, no one minded. But Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles and Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang's last two films, have been as dramatically dismal as their critical overlooking suggests. How to reconcile all this?

If nothing else, Raise The Red Lantern suggests that Zhang's Olympics will be excellent. The title isn't metaphorical: on the 1920s estate of a man made rich by unspecified deeds (Ma Jingwu), the decision as to which of his four mistresses will be spending the night with him is signaled by who has the lanterns hanging outside their house. (The master, never seen in close-up, is as mysterious an authority as the Chinese censors who, in the double-bind state system, are never allowed to directly meet the filmmaker.) Functionaries pad up and down the courtyards, and Zhang lovingly documents the procedures of hanging, lighting, taking down and extinguishing the lanterns. For these men, however, it's as easy to raise the lanterns as to kill a disobedient mistress. Therein lies the rub for Songlian (Gong Li), the new fourth mistress, whose abortive university education and skepticism about the system means trouble for the ancient "customs" that justify the whole estate's bizarre treatment of women.

On a basic level, Raise the Red Lantern is the story of a university-educated student oppressed by the whims of a well-entrenched patriarchy, and even that is asking for trouble in the post-Tiananmen age, despite the film's pre-Communist setting. Zhang's approach to the narrative works as straight melodrama or whatever absolute power parable you might fancy. But Raise the Red Lantern is also a reminder of how Zhang's style has changed: the chilly, formal framing of an infinite series of doorways is closer to contemporary art house norms than Zhang's own recent work, which tends towards the florid and spectacular. Even the shift to the documentary strains of The Story of Qiu Ju wasn't this extreme; that work still has the measured pacing and slow-boiling outrage of Lantern.

Raise The Red Lantern's only true flaw is that its formal deliberation deadens the impact of the tragedy. By the time Songlian's inevitable downfall occurs, it hardly seems to matter. Character emotion subsumes to aesthetics, and the tragedy is strictly theoretical. In the context of Zhang's career, the film makes it clear that the procedural mechanics of large-scale enterprises have always fascinated him; the thousands of synchronized extras performing menial tasks in Curse of the Golden Flower are the logical extension of this estate's smaller army of drones. Perhaps, then, Zhang's Olympics might actually be something to look forward to: a self-satirizing army of functionaries performing symbolic tasks with admirable precision while the director quietly emphasizes the unworthiness of their purpose. Such a Trojan Horse reading might seem optimistic in light of Zhang's recent output, but it's of a piece with this revival.




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