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Film / Raise the Red Lantern

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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."
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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.

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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.
  • Awful Wedded Life: It's implied that none of the wives actually love Master Chen - they're after the power and privileges that they would get by being his favorite wife.
  • Berserk Button: Songlian's presence within the household is this for Yan'er, who was hoping to become a mistress herself. She clearly seethes at the idea of serving her.
  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Songlian reaches hers when her drunken outburst accidentally reveals Meishan's infidelity and leads to her execution. Yan'er reaches hers when Songlian exposes her secret collection of patched-up red lanterns and burns them down, humiliating her in a move so cruel that even the other wives disapprove.
  • Domestic Abuse: Songlian is abusive towards Yan'er. The Master has Meishan murdered for infidelity.
  • 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.
  • Due to the Dead: Songlian honors Meishan by breaking tradition and lighting all the lanterns in Meishan's house by herself, and by playing the recording of Meishan's song. It frightens the servants who come to investigate (possibly the same men who murdered her on the orders of her husband to such an extent that they believe they are witnessing a manifestation of her ghost.
  • 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.
  • Fish out of Water: Songlian is young and educated, and clearly feels out in place in the sprawling Chen mansion, with its customs and rules.
  • 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.
  • Gaslighting: Songlian witnesses Meishan's execution and sees her corpse. She is brought back to her room, and all she is capable of doing is calling the accused out. Master Chen attempts to gaslight her by telling her that she didn't see anything, and that she is mad.
  • Gilded Cage: The sprawling Chen mansion. The wives live in luxury, dress in the finest clothes, eat good food and have their own personal servant, but they are discouraged from leaving and the oppressive environment within makes life difficult for all of them.
  • 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.
  • It's All About Me: Several characters display this in the film. The Master reveals that he wants his wives to be healthy and comfortable because they are able to serve him better this way. Zhuoyun only cares about her own advancement. She's even disappointed in the gender of her child and calls her daughter useless, as a son would have given her more power and privilege.
  • Heir Club for Men: Giving the master a son is considered the most important duty of a wife, and the key to power and authority within the house. Zhouyun calls her own little daughter useless while the child is sitting next to her.
  • 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.
  • Marital Rape License: It's clear that the wives have no right to deny sex to Master Chen.
  • 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.
  • Mistaken for Badass: The wives think nineteen year old Songlian is capable of anything, from cutting hair to stopping each others' machinations, all because she went to university for six months. As it turns out, she's just a young woman way in over her head.
  • Mood Killer: There's a Running Gag with Meishan actively finding ways to interrupt Songlian's moments of intimacy with Master Chen. It gets even funnier when you realize that she does that not just to Songlian, but to Zhouyun as well. Whenever the Master is with Zhouyun, Meishan gets up bright and early to sing at the top of her lungs.
  • 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.
  • Politeness Judo: All wives use it to an extent, but especially Songlian towards Meishan.
  • 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.
  • The Resenter: Yan'er deeply resents Songlian because she represents her dashed hopes to become a mistress. Meishan resents Songlian for being a dangerous competitor in the battle for the privilege of being the favorite wife. Zhouyun resents both Meishan and Songlian for the same reason.
  • Replacement Goldfish: The fifth mistress replaces both Meishan and Songlian.
  • 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.
  • Secret Relationship: Turns out that Meishan and Dr. Gao were having an affair. Master Chen was giving some attention to Songlian's maid Yan'er behind her back.
  • 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.
  • Stepford Smiler: Zhouyun and Meishan, especially around their husband. They put on a happy face because they are aiming to acquire (or in Meishan's case, keep) the coveted position of favorite wife.
  • Tempting Fate: Meishan tells Songlian that she will meet up with her lover soon and defiantly adds: "What can they do to me?" As it turns out, a lot.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Songlian, as a result of the oppressive environment she lives in. She takes it out on Yan'er, with tragic consequences.
  • Top Wife: The First Mistress, who is past her child-bearing years, is implied to be the lawful consort, who rules the house in the husband's absence and in responsible for the other mistresses.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Meishan loves meat, while Songlian favors spinach and bean curd. This plays a role in the rivalry between the women, as the wife with whom the master has spent the previous night has the privilege of selecting the menu. When Songlian sees only meat dishes on the table at lunch, she is bitterly reminded of Meishan's victory and leaves the dining room.
  • 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 Dream: Yan'er dreams about escaping her life of servitude and becoming a mistress. Her conflict with Songlian escalates dangerously and the mistress throws out and burns the patched-up red lanterns that Yan'er was hiding in her room. She also essentially forces Yuru to punish Yan'er, and the maid is forced to kneel before the burning remains, and informed that she can only get up when she apologizes. Yan'er refuses to do so, and nobody does anything to help her, so she kneels in the cold until she collapses and eventually dies.
    • Songlian's original dream of completing her education goes down the drain when her father dies and she is forced to interrupt her studies.
  • Tragic Keepsake: Songlian has her late father's flute before Master Chen throws it, mistakenly believing it was a gift from some former suitor.
  • The Trickster: Zhouyun uses tricks, manipulation and ambiguous loyalty to play Meishan and Songlian against each other, and ruthlessly exploits any mistakes the younger wives make.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Meishan often pretends to be sick to draw the Master to her bedroom. She successfully pulls this off even on his wedding night with Songlian. Zhouyun plays this to the extreme, and makes herself out to be pitiful in front of her husband in order to guilt him into spending more nights with her. It works.
  • 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".

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