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.

--Jon Schmitt

(Raise the Red Lantern 大紅燈籠高高掛, dir. Zhang Yimou 張藝謀, 1991)


Robane said...

I don't like reading to tell me what to think before I see a movie eather. this is one of the best movies we have seen because it sends a message, reflecting on old tradions an how "evil" people can be with but only good intenshions. an example of this is when the forth wife calls out "murders" toward the end of the film.R

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you didn't mistake this film for depicting an authentic version of China. In this respect, I think you've already got an up on many American moviegoers. So with whom did you most identify in the film--Songlian? Do you believe that the Second Wife was merely trying to save face with her actions or that there was something larger at hand? --Jennifer

Gillian Adler said...

Making a film representative of a culture is done, but to take a film that does not implicitly does not try to represent a culture should not be attacked. The article I read about the film's made up traditions were oft-putting. Zhang Yimou wished to make a film about trust and loyalty, not about China. The film just happened to be in Chinese and feature Chinese characters.
What is the greatest thing about this film is that it is universal. With SONG OF THE EXILE (dir. Anna Hui) that universal appeal is lost because of the embedding of deeply Asian issues of race. Through Songlian's (Gong Li) character we see a world seperate from China. The world that is created in the film is the housing quarters, not a specific place in China.

Anonymous said...

Great interpretation of the movie, I'm totally agree with you that this film is not a good representation of china at the time. After seeing this film, one definitely shouldn't be judging other just by looking their facial expression but rather inside value.


Alecs said...

I find it very interesting that American films do not seem to receive the kind of criticism Zhang Yimou received for Raise the Red Lantern. What about the American films that project an imaginary historical past? Why didn't the directors of those films receive criticism for misrepresenting American culture?

Although Zhang Yimou's films are "foreign language films" or "art house films" outside of Chinese speaking countries are they not also simply Chinese Language films? American films, just like Chinese language films make a considerable profit in foreign markets and are produced and distributed in such a way as to be profitable. If we are going to judge Zhang Yimou's films this way, then films like "Titanic" or "Terminator" must be judged the same way. They too project an imagined or blown-up image of a society and individuals.

Anonymous said...

Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern seems to be the interpretation of Zhang's negotiation with a crippled, neglected past. After the Cultural Revolution the strong sense of History, which I believe is a deep under-current in Asian culture and society, must have been utterly disrupted. As an artist, this releases Zhang from historical accuracy, but at the same time it should influence him to salvage the past as best he can. However, Zhang seems much more invested in the international audience at this point in his career. Thus, he takes liberties in isolating a specific feel of China which seems to echo the process/effects of the Cultural Revolution; as Gong Li's character exemplifies, in an attempt to destroy tradition (history/culture) the current situation will likely be hauntingly disrupted. Perhaps Raise the Red Lantern is an attempt at reconciling with the Cultural Revolution, and through that reclaiming what was lost during that time.


Anonymous said...

It seems odd that people would criticize inaccuracies in an obviously fictional film. I was concerned as well that previous readings would affect my viewing but as the reading was so contrary to what my impressions of the film were it didn't make any difference.

Anonymous said...

I can sympathize with your desire to not be told what to do and to not want to build preconceptions about a film before watching it, but i think there is something to be said for researching a film before viewing. For me, understanding the controversies that surrounded the film allowed me to watch it with a skeptical gaze, both towards the film and the criticisms. As a result, i think i was able to build a better opinion of the film and its criticisms, one i dont know i would have been able to form had i watched the films without them.

Anonymous said...

Once again, the previous post about reading about a film before viewing was posted by Joel, and once again he forgot to sign it.