Set in China in the 1920s, Raise the Red Lantern focuses on Songlian, played by Gong Li (2046, Memoirs of a Geisha), a young woman who reluctantly becomes the forth wife to a wealthy lord. The solitude, frustrations and rivalries between the wives are the focus of this melancholic film, while their husband is literally kept in the background or out of frame.
Containing none of the spectacular martial arts from director Zhang Yimou’s recent films, Hero and House of the Flying Daggers, audiences will recognise his extraordinary use of emotive colours and his richly developed female characters. The restrained direction may distance less patient viewers but the core pleasure of this film is its visual beauty, in particular the dramatic titular red lanterns that dominate so many scenes.
This new DVD release is a mixed blessing. On the plus side it allows contemporary audiences to see this highly acclaimed 1991 film by Zhang Yimou. The downside is that the transfer is unacceptably poor. The source print has badly deteriorated, there are also no extras and the subtitles are extremely dodgy. Unfortunately DVDs from other regions seem to have the same problems.
Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 252, 2006