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Matrix of Claustrophobia: Raise the Red Lantern

November 10, 2009 | By

Raise the Red lantern film remains rooted in the everyday of a traditional family, and yet hints at state atrocities committed at Tiananmen Square.

“Woman, then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as a bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”

— LAURA MULVEY,
‘VISUAL PLEASURE AND NARRATIVE CINEMA’.

Matrix of claustrophobia: Raise The Red lantern
Till the mid eighties Chinese films were viewed as works of propaganda with only a few differentiating voices such as Xie Jin’s Two Stage Sisters. The shift towards a new aethetic concern occurred with the arrival of the so called ‘Fifth Generation’ of filmmakers: Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Zhang Yimou. They not only critiqued the Chinese state, but also contested traditional Chinese values like Confucianism.

Although Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige — the two most prominent stars of the Fifth Generation — seemed to have fallen under the spell of Hollywood (Chen Kaige’s Together and Yimou’s Hero are a far cry from their initial aesthetic concerns), their earlier films remain as scathing remarks of the claustrophobic milieu in which they had found their society locked into. And they dealt with the issue through stories constructed on a narrative trajectory rooted in the past that subtly echoed the claustrophobia of the present. Or they wrote into their stories elements of the present, making it seem as a continuation from the stifling moral codes of Confucianism, an ideology that had held its sway on Chinese minds for generations before being replaced by the state ideology of communism. For the Fifth generation filmmakers there were, so it would seem, two ideologies to counter with: Communism and Confucianism, both potential enough to strangle the minds when applied in their debased forms.

“Only when families are regulated are states well governed; only when states are well governed is there peace in the world.”

The above Confucian dictum, (surely a frightening and misplaced motto when applied uncritically) finds a harsh critic in Yimou’s’ Raise the Red Lantern. The last of a trilogy — preceded by Red Sorghum, 1987 and Judou 1990, Raise the Red Lantern, is deeply critical of Confucianism and Chinese culture

The film was originally banned in China. After the ban was lifted it was screened only on televisions. One need not stretch one’s imagination for such a response. Its simple storyline of a family steeped in rigid customs and defined roles, was nevertheless potent enough to convey the larger issues of power as practised in China.

Like Chen Kaige’s Farewell by Concubine, there are few protagonists in Raise the Red Lantern. Both films unfold in closed interiors, or else in stylised settings, for instance the performing stage in Farewell my concubine. While the latter film stretches itself from feudal china to cultural revolution of the sixties, all the while retaining the charged tension between an individual’s allegiance to art and the powers that seek to control that matrix, Raise the Red lantern remains rooted in the everyday of a traditional family, and yet hints at state atrocities committed at Tiananmen Square. In fact, Raise the Red lantern is a much more frugal film compared to Kaige’s. It lacks, intentionally, the sweep of Farewell my Concubine. There is no tension of an individual’s relation to art in the midst of stifling conditions. There are no evocative emotional quotients. Nothing spills out. Like the power structure of a society under which it operates, the expressions of its protagonists (even when evilly) are hushed, secretive. This minimalist approach lends the film an austerity that helps to highlight the inner atrocities that are perpetuated within the confines of the household.

Matrix of claustrophobia: Raise The Red lantern
The constrictive sanheyuan or Chinese courtyard house becomes the arena for the stifling drama. Based on the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong and set in Northern China in the 1920s, the film stars Gong Li as Songlian, the fourth wife of an elderly landlord. College educated, Songlian has been married off by her stepmother. Immediately the film hints at the compromises expected out of a woman at the altar of conventions. Despite her college education Songlian has to strive for to fit herself according to the demands of a family ripe with jealously and strife.

The story evokes the rigidity of the conventions of a feudal household. Here, as in a dictatorial state, any lapse on the part of the concubines, sexual or otherwise can result in death or madness.

That’s the unwritten law. That is the fear that stalks the interiors of the household. So the hapless players condition themselves to play according to the rules. For following the rules would result in favours. It is an expected response, similar to the citizens of a repressive state, who, to curry favour from the ruling elite, tends to turn a blind eye to the repressive machinery required to maintain dominance.

Every thing slips into a routine. The air of claustrophobia is built upon by Yimou through a series of everyday family practices that accentuates the latent fissures and ongoing power struggles within the four concubines. The most haunting of the practises followed in the family is the lightening of lanterns every night. The lanterns are not lit as a mere decor. It serves as a sign of favour from the landlord, a signal that he would favour the company of the particular woman in front of whose room the lantern has been lit. It also becomes a token of power for the lady, a token to differentiate her sway over the master, even if fleetingly. Since Songlian is the newest and beautiful wife, her presence sets off a power struggle. So, when lanterns are lit in front of her room on the first night, the third and pampered wife gears up for action. She succeeds in getting the landlord away from Songlian on the pretext of illness.

The interrelationships between the concubines echo a clichéd drama, but within the context of the film it acquires shaded dimensions, full of resonances of the world outside the interiors. Working through a personalised vision towards the political system in which he operates, Yimou seeks to transcribe the members interrelationship with one another as that of hapless individuals blind adherence to political ‘rules’, often so draconian that corruption is inevitable.

Matrix of claustrophobia: Raise The Red lantern This idea finds its most potent echo in Songlian’s responses. The claustrophobic situation Songlian finds herself doesn’t impel her to break free. Rather like a man caught in the web of corridors of power resigns to accept the rules in order to make him or her survive, Songlian seeks solution by acquiescing to play the rules which in the first place have trapped her. Beauty and sexual appeal are secondary attributes in a battle of wits that demands guile and duplicity. Much of the film deals with how, having found herself trapped, Songlian asserts herself though deceit and machinations. She demands nothing out of her educated self.

She submits and in her submission is the political nuance of the film. Unnecessary heroism wouldn’t lead to anywhere. She had the example of how, two of the family members were subjected to torture and death for defying the cloistered rules of the game as practised in the family. And, in the process of reasserting herself according to convention she would encounter two deaths. The first would be the suicide of her maid, an effect of Songlian’s own frustration to rein in the maid’s secret desire to become a mistress and to stop her from causing harm to Songlian. The second of the death would be overtly violent. After discovering of her harmless affair with the family doctor she will be consigned to imprisonment and death within a chamber located on the terrace of the house. Women perpetuate both punishment and receive a fatal blow themselves, all under the inexorable compulsions arising out of a bonded existence.

To accentuate the hidden power, the director never discloses the face of the master, but keeps him in a shroud. Having this near non-presence and yet wielding an invisible hold on the way life is conducted within the courtyard resonances of the way state apparatchiks create a sense of pervading power, even without being in the public eye.

Apart from the repeated use of lanterns, Yimou also makes use of the fetish of foot massage as a tool to critique conventional obsessions. Traditionally, a woman’s feet have been given the utmost importance in china. Smaller a woman’s feet, the smaller her vagina – such a myth held a sway for generations among privileged class. Toes of women were turned under the soles of their feet, hence breaking them, and their flesh rotted into blood-soaked bandages Foot binding also ensured that women would take daintier steps. Zhang ingeniously write in and critiques the tradition of foot binding by replacing it with the foot massage. Under him the act of massaging becomes a kind of foreplay: a sexual prelude aimed at the master’s satisfaction by being the perfect receptacle.

Thus the Chen household becomes a microcosm of the greater issues of power and ethics, as actualised according to set rules in the world outside it. The inevitable giving-in to the ways of the household is a result of the slow build up of claustrophobia that tends to accumulate within the four walls like gathering mist and engulfs one and all. It erodes the free will, leaving the protagonists to mimic the system. This mimetic aspect is the strength of the film. If the director had sought to project a liberating response out of Songlian it would have dulled the film’s nature. Songlian would have appeared a caricature.

Colour and architecture build up this mood of claustrophobia. Often, in period films or films intended to exhume the nuances of a feudal life employ a deliberate restrictive pace and often repeats a few set motifs. Satyajit Ray’s Satranj Ki Khiladi employed this aspect. If not deliberately followed, such an approach also characterises the works of the fifth generation of artists. A preponderance of long takes, long shots, and deep-focus, and curtailing the pace of the story becomes potent tools to convey the static world of a rigid household lost in rituals.

Another means that the director wields with great finesse is the way he fashions the role of Gong Li as Songlian. Li and Yimou have come together in films like To live and Jo Dou, films that have at its core the personalized emotional states in conflict with traditions or the fiat of the state.

Abandon use of colours, predominated by reds and yellows, adds a separate character to the dark milieu in which the restrictive conduct of the main protagonist is shaped and reaches a catharsis. The constant use of the lanterns also hints at an irony. Although it illuminates and washes everything in a romantic glow, the glow of the lantern cannot obliterate deceit and madness and death. The light remains a mere marker of feudal satiation. An illuminating entrapment.

But more than colours, which is obviously noticeable from the word go, the architecture of the house acquires the power of an evilly constructed matrix to sustain deep-seated mores.

It is an interlocking world made of long shadowy corridors, interconnected passageways, lonely rooftops, hushed courtyards and muted living rooms. The mysterious existence of a room on the rooftop a place where many of the females have met with horrible fates, adds the final and cruel touch to an interior space where subterfuge is the means to keep the status quo intact. The space binds and shapes the characters. Different angles of the courtyard’s architecture echoes the emotional states of the people locked within it. This mood gets accentuated each time lively silky dresses worn by wives and red lanterns are shot against the grey fortress.

Aerial shots of the palace in different seasons – snowy winter, in the rains and summer are metaphors of the moods of the people living within. The first entrance of Songlian in the courtyard in a school uniform sets the mood. She is shown standing framed by a huge Chinese plaque behind her, inscribed with ancient Chinese typescript painted in gold. It prepares the viewer that she is about to enter a world where the dictates are rigid and it would impact her life.

Sound plays a dominant role in the film, the most emblematic among which are the words of the master: “Light the lantern”. The haunting resonance of the massage stick (topped with a small sack filled with pebbles) the sounds of flute and opera music is used in pivotal moments, punctuating the milieu with foreboding and claustrophobia.

Like every detail in the film, the title of the film is replete with connotations. It creates an analogy with the Red Chinese national flag. And just as Yimou is keen to underscore that the red lanterns, despite its illuminating presence cannot eclipse the machinations undergoing in the family, the once liberating resonances of the red flag can also not hide the atrocities it is compelled to perform. Perhaps, the director is hinting at the core: ideologies, if allowed to stink and rot, acquire a rigidity that undermines the urges of people, irrespective of the fact whether the ideology is Confucianism or Communism.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Shiladitya Sarkar is a painter and writer based in Mumbai. He has exhibited in UK, USA, Hongkong, West Indies, Singapore and in various parts of India. He has written two books: Thirst of a minstrel and Abstract Reality. He writes on Art and Culture in various magazines including Art India.
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