There are few films that have had enough courage to address misogyny in all its complexity the way Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern did back in 1991. I use the word complexity because Hollywood has had a long history of avoiding the multi-faceted nature of misogyny in favor of a more narrow minded depiction of this cultural phenomenon.
Very often movies (starting in the 1940s with Mildred Pierce) failed to contribute to a larger, more political discussion for fear of audiences’ and studios’ backlash. American cinema, especially in the times of studio control with the likes of MGM, United Artists, Universal, RKO literally taking apart each film that contained a grain of avant-garde politics in them for the sake of keeping the audiences dumb and happy. Many great films suffered this way, most notably Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, which initially was conceived as a dark examination of racism and corruption in small-town America, but ended up being put together as a more conventional film noir meant to be sold to the masses. To be outspoken in Hollywood can often mean getting crucified by a politically-safe industry.
Fortunately, on the other side of the world, directors like Zhang Yimou, a member of the Fifth Generation cinema that emerged from Maoist China following the Cultural Revolution, did not share the same scruples and did not back down even in the face of a totalitarian regime. His film, Raise the Red Lantern, is to this day a remarkable achievement of subtle storytelling and powerful imagery concerning China’s abusive traditional and misogynistic social structure that, turns out, is not so different from our own.
Misogyny is an oppressive system. An entrapment. The same way Yimou’s film opens with a 19-year-old girl, Songlian, who after her father’s death is forced to quit university and dedicate the rest of her life to being a master’s concubine. The year is 1920 and the custom states that the girl, in order to support herself and her family, must abandon home and become another man’s wife (he already has three).
With tears streaming down her face she accepts her fate and enters the wealthy Chen residence, surrounded by tall, stone walls, just like a prison. Here, she is treated like a lady and served by a maid whose ambition is to become a mistress in her own right. The other concubines know fully well that the new concubine will be the master’s favorite for quite some time. Every day they anxiously await the master’s decision regarding which concubine he will choose to spend the night with (the lucky one is signaled by having red lanterns lit in front of her house). The custom states that the lucky one will be treated better than the others. The exclusive treatment involves the opportunity to deviate from the day’s menu of foods, asking for an endless series of foot massages and obviously, not spending the night alone, which within these grey walls can feel like the worst of punishments.
Yimou smartly approaches the theme of misogyny by focusing on the alienated bodies of the four concubines. The master is rarely seen on screen, and in the few instances that he appears in the frame, he is shot from a distance or obscured by a dim light or is out of focus. His power and influence over the lives of these four women is felt rather than seen.
The concubines, on the other hand, are very physical and vulnerable in their presentation. The first one is old and wrinkled, the second one fragile and preoccupied, the third one beautiful and seductive, and Songlian, the fourth one, naive and innocent. Their oppression at the hands of the centuries-old traditions under which the Chen residence operates (and the entire Chinese society, for that matter) lies in this presentation: reduced solely to their physical appearance and their obedience to the master’s commands and needs. They are expected to express themselves only in bed, when the master allows for conversation. Otherwise, the concubines are forced to live their lives in utter silence, awaiting the day’s verdict on whether concubine number one, two, three or four will get to delight the master with her body, and who knows, perhaps even with a successful pregnancy (of a boy, obviously).
As the film progresses, we start to notice a pattern. Misogyny and the patriarchal oppression that have been carried out in the Chen residence for centuries on end is implemented by the concubines themselves. Through the acceptance of their fate and the act of seeking fulfillment to the master’s sexual needs, the concubines become complicit in their oppression. Because their sole purpose in life lies in offering their body to master Chen, they are driven to acts of pure hatred and hostility toward one another. Lies are spread around the residence, rumors are raised to favor one concubine over the other, and there are even stories of two concubines from past generations hanging themselves out of sheer desperation in a small tool shed.
As mere objects in a male-dominated society, these women find themselves actively hurting each other, accepting their positions and further deepening their own oppression. Sex is never shown on screen. It is simply implied, but not as an act of love and intimacy, but as an act of transaction: the master’s satisfaction and assertion of his control and the woman’s acknowledgment of her own worth.
The ambitions of these concubines never rise over and above the day ahead of them. Their survival is never guaranteed, as it is never a sure bet that the master will select the same woman for a number of consecutive nights. The eldest of the four, a shy yet firm woman of around fifty has become used to this oppressive state of existence, while the other three are tormented by the simple thought of being overlooked by their master. The lack of a foot massage and lack of say in the creation of the day’s menu signify lack of self-worth and utter humiliation in the face of society. Songlian’s initial look of innocence is replaced with the cunning instinct of someone is who fighting for survival, no matter the cost or consequences of her actions. Faking a potential pregnancy or spreading falsehoods about the other concubines is the only way out of this trap. It at least guarantees you a few days of comfort, perhaps even a month of delicious meals and healing massages. But the only liberation beyond these walls takes place in the master’s bedroom. The only acknowledgment of their existence are the red lanterns hanging outside their house.
The dreams of the maid whose ambition was to become a mistress are ultimately crushed. The hierarchy among women in the Chen residence closely resembles the hierarchy of a totalitarian regime, perhaps the one under which this movie was made and consequently banned for a number of years. Whether it is a cry for help or a manifesto against the powers that be, Raise the Red Lantern shows how simple it is to effectively oppress other human beings through the implementation of customs and traditions. Their morality is never questioned, but rather taken for granted and set aside in favor of their legality. As a result of this, the protagonists of this film are simultaneously presented as victims and perpetrators of each other’s fate. They suffer and inflict suffering on others in the name of a misogynistic society that values their bodies and their silence above all. Their existence never leaves the bedroom, and if it does, it will not go unpunished.