Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Raise the Red Lantern

Su Tong is one of the acclaimed modern Chinese writers, and Zhang Yimou is perhaps the most acclaimed contemporary Chinese filmmaker. Together, but separately, they have produced two masterful versions of Raise the Red Lantern, a story of life among the wealthy in 1930s China.

Su Tong was only in his 20s when he published the novella Wives and Concubines (the story’s pre-movie title), a tale of first year college student Lotus whose father goes bankrupt and can no longer afford to pay her tuition. Soon after she returns home, her disgraced father slashes his wrists, killing himself in the bathroom. Lotus' stepmother gives the girl a choice: get a job or get married. Lotus, grieving but practical, chooses marriage. When asked if she prefers a rich marriage or a poor marriage, she quickly chooses a rich marriage.

Which is how Lotus became a concubine, the fourth wife of wealthy Chen Zuoxian, and smack in the middle of a family full of mutual distrust, constant scheming, and resultant resentment and hatred. What follows is a taut tale of survival, of Lotus' inability to adapt from college student to concubine, of her inability to fit into the family emotionally, of her relationship with Second Mistress Cloud and Third Mistress Coral, with First Son Feipu who is very fond of Lotus, with Swallow her devious personal servant, and with Old Master Chen himself. And then there is the mysterious well on the property behind the house where several concubines in previous generations drowned themselves after committing adultery.

Wives and Concubines is a bittersweet story whose ending seems foreshadowed until Su Tong fools the reader quite successfully. And he leaves you with many thoughts: did it have to be that way? Was this how life felt for so many Chinese concubines? For all Chinese women? Or just for the weak of heart who could not adjust emotionally to that way of life? Such a question cannot possibly be addressed in the abstract, so I was forced to consider how would I feel if roles were reversed and I were Lotus or Coral. Would I have been able to give up my freedom and my career for such a life? Or, perhaps more importantly, would I have even tried to adapt any more than Lotus seemed to try? Su Tong, writing from a vantage point 60 years removed in time, but perhaps not as far removed in place and culture, raises important questions that deserved to be considered very seriously, although it is unlikely such questions can ever be answered by a 21st century American.

And then along comes Zhang Yimou with one of the most incredible movies I have seen. In several ways the movie version of Raise the Red Lantern reminded me of the best works of Stanley Kubrick’s, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and, perhaps even more so, A Clockwork Orange. The movie was a visual treat, its scenes generally sparsely done but with seemingly every object placed very deliberately for a definite purpose. Zhang uses color incredibly well, often creating an entire mood by his use of a single color. The red lanterns, which were his creation entirely and not in the book at all, were a masterful stroke. So was the gentle snowfall which accompanied the movie’s climactic scene.

More than just visually, the pacing of Raise the Red Lantern felt just right. After Yimou created his moods visually, he successfully amplified them with a frozen moment here, a single line of speech there, silence another time. Like Kubrick, this was a very careful, slow-paced movie, one intended to be eaten slowly like a gourmet feast rather than like so many fast-food junk meals that parade as serious entertainment.

Every important aspect of the book was in the movie, and done well. And the climactic scene was absolutely stunning. Terrifying in one way, deeply emotional in another. Very seldom do I feel this way, but that scene alone made the movie superior to the book itself (a rarity, since I enjoyed the book very much)

I recommend this double experience to all my readers. Both the movie and the book are strongly character-oriented, although the plot is strong enough to entertain by itself. And you will not forget the ending of either for a long, long time.


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