In chapter 14 of C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost he documents four demonic responses to the reality of being trapped in hell; one demon advises pure rage as a way to cope, another advises complete inaction, a third advises imitating heaven within hell, and the fourth, Satan himself, advises the hurting of others; if our own existence is trapped, he reasons, then perhaps we can drag a few others down with us. And this, I might add, is a perfect picture of envy.
Curiously, there could hardly be a more apt foil to examine Zhang Yimou’s 1991 film, Raise the Red Lantern. And yet, while I don’t propose that Zhang Yimou or Su Tong (author of the source material) had read Lewis—or Milton for that matter—I do suspect that Milton, Lewis, and Tong have tapped into something common to the human experience. Rage, inaction, imitation, and envy are four extremely human recourses to the experience of hell on earth.
Raise the Red Lantern is the story of four ‘sister’ wives who struggle for petty power within a home controlled by a set of mysterious, traditional rules. Among these, and the source of the film’s title, is the tradition that each night the master chooses the bed of the wife with whom he will sleep. When she has been chosen, red lanterns are lit in her room for the household to see; a consequence of the lit lanterns is that the ‘chosen’ wife wields the greatest influence in the house. We are introduced to this world by Songlian, the household master’s new fourth wife, played superbly by Gong Li. Four ‘seasonal’ periods in the film unveil both the characters and motives of the wives as well as the rules and their terrible consequences.
It would be easy to short-circuit the deeper implications of the film by focusing on the gender differences—that is, by reading this story as a war between the wives and the male master. Yimou, I believe, is at pains to direct us away from this. The master’s face is always obscured; he is shown from behind, or at a distance, or through a veil. He is an important player in the household, yet his life is not the focus of the film in the slightest. In fact, his facelessness renders him more a part of the scenery of the house than an active member; he is as much a part of this household prison as the cold stone walls.
The house itself is a potent screen against which Yimou casts his events. Bleakness is the overarching visual motif. The house, though large, shows signs of decaying age. Colorless stone abounds. And upon this cold, hard canvas Yimou causes two things to be highlighted. First, in the daily ceremony of choosing and elaborate lighting of the lanterns that follows, the vibrant red casts the powerful glow of favoritism against the bleak walls of the house. We are made to feel both the warmth of the master’s choice and the chill of his neglect. Second, Yimou’s staging keenly draws our attention to the four women. Elaborate sets and costumes would have drawn our attention away from the four women themselves, but as it stands we are compelled to gaze upon their faces and consider their characters.
Furthermore, within the world of Raise the Red Lantern suggestion is the storytelling method of choice. Things are not shown so much as they are implied, and this is one of the great strengths of the film. We do not need to see inside the mysterious tower where disobedient wives find their demise to know what goes on there—and, in fact, our imaginations are far better sources of material than anything that Yimou could have contrived. Suggestion is not limited to the visual, however. When a wife is chosen for the evening one of her ‘perks’ is that she is given a curious foot massage—her feet are pounded by miniature hammers that have bells in them. The bells ring loud enough for the sound to be heard throughout the house. On her first night in the house, Songlian, like us, finds this phenomenon strange. But as the movie progresses we come to see that the pleasure of the foot massage is not in the massage, but in the knowledge that the other wives are not receiving it. We experience Songlian’s discomfort when she, like us, must hear the sound of favoritism in the bells coming from a sister wife’s chamber, and we later witness her delicious enjoyment as she relishes in the fact that she has been chosen.
Truly, the greatest pleasure in this household is the taking of pleasure from others. It is, in Miltonic language, the Satanic response to an existential hell. And in fact, I believe that this house in Raise the Red Lantern seems to stand for that very existential helplessness experienced by much of humanity. Within it, the world is seen as an inescapable prison of mysterious rules and painful consequences. The house is our world, closed; we inhabit this home throughout the many seasons of life. There are rules in our universe which we break at our own risk. And the wives, though taking particular pleasure in envy, embody the various responses to which we have recourse.
The first and eldest wife is a picture of inaction. The lanterns in her home are never lit because of her age, and she has seemingly resigned herself to her fate. Accustomed to her position of powerlessness, she is barely a participant in the household goings on. The third wife is a picture of imitation—a former opera singer, she (also the image of the caged songbird) fills the house with her songs, fills her room with images of the opera, and is the only wife who seeks to bring some of the outside world into the home with her. She even does this through her illicit relationship with the family doctor. Her way of coping with hell is to try and recreate a little heaven within it.
The second wife plays the Satanic role in the film—through false pretence she makes it her goal to hurt others. She despises the first wife because of the son that she had given to the master, despises the third wife for the same reason, and sees in Gong Li a threat as she herself ages. She is the silent power player in the film, working through envy to destroy the others around her.
And Gong Li, the fourth wife and our guide, is a picture of rage. She comes to loathe the household rules and the members of the house. She becomes petty in her rage, hurting her serving girl, squabbling with the other wives unnecessarily, and ultimately bringing about two deaths by her actions. In the end, her uncontrolled rage is the very cause of her demise.
Raise the Red Lantern is a bleak but beautiful film that explores human responses to despairing captivity. It is beautiful in its storytelling, cinematography, editing, and performance, but bleak and terrible in it’s portrayal of human despair and sin—which, I might add, is a perfectly appropriate marriage.