Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Raise the Red Lantern
What I wish I hadn't heard before viewing this film is the way in which it is a paradigm for attacks on Zhang Yimou's alleged manufacturing of a false Orientalism. I very deliberately did not read the section on Raise the Red Lantern in Sheldon Hsiao-Peng Lu's article "National Cinema, Cultural Critique, and National Capital", as was assigned for this class, before seeing the film. I hate being told what to think.
So, in my viewing of Raise the Red Lantern I made a somewhat futile attempt to disregard and previous "knowledge" (aka speculation) on the implications and cultural critique implicit in the traditions and setting of the film. As we discussed in class, there are several reasons that the quirkiness of the family does not represent China as a whole, the first being the apparent surprise in Song Lian’s character when she learns of all this feudal families traditions. Also, most of the subtleties and intricacies of the very dynamic relationship between the four wives are necessarily unique to those for particular personalities. Never in the viewing of the film did I get the impression that the circumstances and roles of the characters the norm in the culture at large. It was however implicit of the possibility of such a chain of events to be allowed to happen, if not unnoticed, unrepented. You might compare this film to Deliverance in this respect. Its doodling banjos and bestiality are infamous. While the events of the film speak to the kind of horrible things people are capable of in a place like the not-so-old rural south, sharing many characteristics with the not-so-old rural china depicted in Raise the Red Lantern, it never implies those activities or the moral worldview represented therein to be the norm of the Nation-State at large.
As nothing more than just another "thinks he knows everything about movies despite knowing nothing about film" critical movie goer, I really enjoyed the films screenplay, acting, story, characters, and music. Most importantly it made you question yourself and the kind of person with whom you can identify. If there was any obvious cultural commentary, to me, it was embodied in the second wife with the "Buddha's face but Scorpion's Heart". All her actions were guided by and justified with an obsession with her reputation. Chinese writers from Lu Xun to Wang Shuo in Please Don't Call Me Human have pointed out China's obsession with saving "face" and how damaging this is to a cohesive and humanistic society.
(Raise the Red Lantern 大紅燈籠高高掛, dir. Zhang Yimou 張藝謀, 1991)