There’s so much to cover with Raise the Red Lantern (1991), a film I screened in this week’s History of Cinema class. There is the film’s historical portrayal of Chinese feudal society in the early twentieth century. The particular depiction of misogyny is also instructive because it reveals a great deal about the treatment of women in this polygamist family. However, for this review, I want to discuss the way the film’s style portends the fatal ending and that endlessness of the women’s subjugation.
Warning: Spoilers are afoot
Think of the film as depicting a cycle.
First, we see the new mistress coming to the home and being introduced to the older mistresses. As we see each one, we understand that each mistress almost perfectly represents a generation of women. We know little of the Second Mistress other than her desire to bear a son for the Master. The Third Mistress, on the other hand, was at one time a working opera singer. The Fourth Mistress, as a university student, stands as the most ambitious of them all. Each one is more professionally and socially accomplished than the previous one. However, each of these “generations” are compressed into a matter of years, although the actual length is indiscernible.
Second, the Master’s physical absence throughout the film amplifies his power, especially compared to the mistresses, servants, and even Doctor Gao. The Master is conspicuously absent for most of the film. The film employs a variety of tricks to obscure him, such as cutting away at a key moment, having objects block or screen him, or simply framing him from a great distance to render him indistinct. Such techniques give him a spiritual quality that makes him almost immortal.
Third, the film foreshadows the ultimate doom for two of the mistresses. When we see the Third Mistress on the roof of the building, which will be of great narrative significance in the film’s penultimate scene, she resembles an apparition. Her red dress contrasts with the blue sky and monochrome stone structure of the house. As the wind blows and she sings, she has a ghostlike quality. This not only a sign of her fate but also a manifestation of women whose spirits are unsettled. Fourth Mistress punctuates the spiritual tone of that scene when she later confides with First Mistress, “This place is haunted.”
Finally, after the Third and Fourth mistresses’ fates are sealed, we see a Fifth Mistress join the house. She is presumably the youngest of them all.1 As the cycle begins anew, there are some unsettled ghosts in the house. Fourth Mistress attempts to “unleash” Third Mistress’s ghost by lighting her lanterns and playing a gramophone recording of her singing. Moreover, Fourth Mistress has apparently gone mad. Her life is spared but the trauma of witnessing, and to some degree causing, Third Mistress’s death. But the house and its generations of tradition continue undisturbed. The film suggests that there will be no end to this cycle.
It seems significant to note that Fourth Mistress’s downfall begins on the day she turns twenty years of age. ↩