Let me be a concubine. Isn't that the fate of a woman?
"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."Raise The Red Lantern
— Meishan, Third Concubine.
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 rise of communism
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.
- Banned in China
- Beware the Nice Ones: Zhouyun has the face of the Buddha and a heart full of scorpions.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The Second Wife is probably one of the most triumphant examples of this.
- 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.
- 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.
- Costume Porn: The fine textiles of the wives especially stand out against the dull beige brick of the estate.
- Downer Ending
- Drowning My Sorrows: Songlian does this at one point, with disastrous consequences.
- Eating Lunch Alone: At some point, Songlian pretends to have lunch in her own room.
- 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.
- Foreshadowing: Early on, Songlian finds a locked building with an abandoned pair of woman's slippers. This is where Meishan is taken to be excuted 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 her former 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.
- Ice Queen: Songlian.
- 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.
- Jerkass: Chen, definitely.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Meishan isn't that bad.
- Law of Inverse Fertility
- 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.
- May-December Romance
- Nightmare Fuel: Meishan's execution
- 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.
- Old Retainer
- The Ophelia: Songlian at the film's end.
- Peking Opera
- Pillow Pregnancy: Songlian fakes a pregnancy to gain power over Master Chen and the other wives. Exposed by the averting of No Periods, Period.
- Pretty in Mink: Some fur muffs, fur trimmed jackets, and a short white rabbit fur cape.
- The Primadonna: Meishan often acts like one probably because of her past success.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: The first wife is this in Master Chen's absence. She also manages to hold the Mistresses' tongues.
- The Rival: Meishan is this to Songlian at the beginning. Later they become firends.
- Sanity Slippage: Songlian
- Scenery Porn
- Secret Relationship: Meishan and Dr. Gao
- Snow Means Death
- 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".