Film / Raise the Red Lantern
Let me be a concubine. Isn't that the fate of a woman?

Meishan, Third Concubine: "Good or bad, it's all playacting. If you act well, you can fool other people; if you do it badly, you can only fool yourself, and when you can't even fool yourself, you just can fool the ghosts."
Songlian, Fourth Concubine: "The difference between people and ghosts is only a gasp of air. People are ghouls and ghouls are people."

Raise The Red Lantern is an award-winning 1991 film directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li, in the role that brought her to international attention. It is set in the early 1920s, well before the Communist Party's conquest of the country.

After the death of her father, the family of 19 year old university-educated Songlian is left destitute. She marries wealthy Master Chen, becoming his fourth and youngest wife. Upon arriving at his palatial estate, she is greeted with a massage, and her private room is decorated with brightly lit, red paper lanterns preceding a visit from her new husband.

Songlian soon discovers that this treatment is not regular. Every evening, the four wives (Yuru, Zhouyun, Meishan and Songlian herself) are made to stand before their doors in their shared courtyard while their husband decides who he will sleep with that night, announced by the placing of the eponymous red lantern in her doorway. That woman alone receives regal treatment, while the others are left alone. Trapped in the largely empty but claustrophobic estate, the four wives are locked in a constant power struggle for Chen's attention.

The film is an adaption of the 1990 novel Wives and Concubines, by Su Tong. It was temporarily Banned in China, until the film gained international praise and was shown to have a positive impact on tourism. The film was later adapted into a ballet.

This film provides examples of:

  • Accidental Public Confession: A drunken Songlian accidentally reveals Meishan's infidelity.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Zhuoyun is probably one of the most triumphant examples of this. She acts nicely with Songlian but is actually plotting her downfall.
  • Black and Gray Morality: Beyond the two very young children, there are almost no innocent characters. The cold-hearted protagonist and her fellow wives scheme until they destroy each other. The servants, who seem pathetic in their adoration of the noble Chen family, take a sudden turn into Nightmare Fuel when Songlian discovers how seriously they take the old family traditions...
  • Building of Adventure: The film takes place almost entirely within the wives' rooms and the courtyard of the walled estate.
  • Cheating with the Milkman: Meishan has an affair with Dr. Gao, who visits Master Chen regularly.
  • Composite Character: There are three wives in the ballet instead of four and each take elements from at least two of the original four. The third wife is a combination of Songlian and Meishan, the second wife is a combination of Zhuoyun and Songlian, and the first wife is mostly like Yuru with hints of Zhuoyun.
  • Commonality Connection: In their bounding moment, Meishan acknowledges she and Songlian are fellow misfits in an household of proper ladies, since they are a former singer and a former student.
  • Costume Porn: The fine textiles of the wives especially stand out against the dull beige brick of the estate.
  • Downer Ending: Songlian is mad at the end of the film, Meishan is dead and the fault is mostly Songlian's. Zhuoyun is free from her two main rivals, but there's a new concubine who will replace her.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Songlian does this at one point, with disastrous consequences.
  • Eating Lunch Alone: At some point, Songlian orders of having lunch in her own room, since she has no wish of spending time with the other wives.
  • Environmental Symbolism: The film starts in Summer and reaches its emotional climax in Winter.
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: Zhuoyun. As Meishan points out, she has a Buddha’s face, but a scorpion’s heart.
  • The Faceless: Master Chen's face is never seen clearly except for at a distance.
  • Fake Pregnancy: Songlian fakes a pregnancy to gain power over Master Chen and the other wives. Exposed by the averting of No Periods, Period.
  • Foreshadowing: Early on, Songlian finds a locked building with an abandoned pair of woman's slippers. This is where Meishan is taken to be executed later.
  • Good Old Ways: "The Chen family's customs go back many generations. It is important that you obey them."
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Master Chen finds a flute in Songlian's bags and burns it without telling her anything, thinking it was a present from a boy at university. Turns out it had belonged to her late father.
    • Yan'er is bitchy to Songlian from the beginning because she wants herself to be a Mistress.
    • Zhuoyun secretly hates Songlian, obviously because she's younger and more beautiful. Also, she hates Meishan or the same reasons and because Meishan was able to gave Chen a son, while Zhuoyun couldn't.
  • Ice Queen: Songlian appears as such, but because she's secretly lonely and scared.
  • In Vino Veritas: Songlian gets drunk and exposes Meishan's affair with Doctor Gao.
  • Hidden Depths: Meishan is nicer and deeper than she looks.
  • Karma Houdini: Zhuoyun appears to have won the feud with Meishan and Songlian but take a look at Pyrrhic Victory.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: Songlian "accidentally" happens to cut Zhouyun's ear when she was helping to cut her hair. This was the reward for all the crap she was putting her through.
  • Jerkass: Chen, definitely. It could be said that entire household (and the plot as well) revolves around his pettiness.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Meishan isn't that bad. Despite their rocky start, she and Songlian eventually bond.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Zhuoyun resents Meishan not only for being younger and prettier, but because Meishan gave Chen an healthy boy while she gave birth to a daughter and doesn't get pregnant again.
  • Lonely Together: Songlian and Meishan start to hanging out with each other most of all out of loneliness, but Meishan acknowledges they are fellow misfits in an household of proper ladies.
  • Love Father, Love Son: Songlian is in the film somewhat attracted by Master Chen's eldest son, who is around her age. In the original novel she falls for him.
  • Marriage Before Romance: An example of how this sort of trope does not necessarily result in a happy ending. Songlian marries Chen as his fourth wife. Although she is initially indifferent to him, she soon becomes embroiled in the competition between the wives to seduce him and gain his undivided attention.
  • Mood Killer: There's a Running Gag with Meishan actively finding ways to interrupt Songlian's moment of intimacy with Master Chen.
  • No Hero to His Valet: Songlian is cold to her servant Yan'er from the beginning, and Yan'er wastes no time in ratting her out once she gets the chance.
  • No Periods, Period: Averted, which reveals Songlian isn't actually pregnant.
  • Old Retainer: And they are very respectful of the Good Old Ways.
  • The Ophelia: Songlian at end is shown wandering in her quarters wearing her college clothes.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Between Songlian and Feipu.
  • Peking Opera
  • Pretty in Mink: The concubine's winter clothes includes fancy furs, such as fur muffs, fur trimmed jackets, and Songlian's short white rabbit fur cape.
  • The Primadonna: Meishan often acts like one probably because of her past success.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: It very likely would be the case with Zhuoyun. While she appears to successfully get rid of Meishan and Songlian, at the end of the film Chen brings a new concubine even younger than Songlian. Zhuoyun is the second oldest after the first wife so it's matter of time before she's cast aside for good.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The first wife is in charge of the house in Master Chen's absence. When given the power she manages to hold the Mistresses' tongues and calm down for a while their petty feuds.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: The two youngest concubines Meishan and Songlian. Meishan is a brash primadonna and former singer, Songlian is an Ice Queen and a former student. They are even pictured in the page image wearing this very colours.
  • The Rival: Meishan is this to Songlian at the beginning. Later they become friends.
  • Sanity Slippage: The entire movie is Songlian's journey to madness.
  • Scenery Porn: Despite being the Chinese version of a Kitchen Sink Drama (it never goes beyond the Chen household's door) the rare shot of the panorama are incredibly beautiful, featuring the Qiao Family Compound, a real life private palace of traditional Chinese architecture.
  • Snow Means Death: The plot evolving by following the change of seasons. The climax fittingly takes place in winter, with the servant Yan'er kneeling outdoors in winter until she dies from the cold, while snow flakes fall around her. Then there is the unfaithful third wife accidentally being exposed by the protagonist when drunk and executed by her husband and servants.
  • Tragic Bromance: Songlian and Meishan eventually become friends, but one day Songlian gets drunk and accidentally reveals Meishan is having an affair, resulting Meishan being executed. Songlian after this goes mad with guilt and loneliness.
  • Tragic Keepsake: Songlian has her late father's flute before Master Chen throws it, mistakenly believing it was a gift from some former suitor.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: The First and the Second Mistress are a classic example. Songlian and Meishan are a subversion, as pointed out by Meishan, a singer and a student are "different".