Film review: Raise the Red Lantern

Published: Friday, May 29 1992 12:00 a.m. MDT

"Raise the Red Lantern" may bring to mind "Ju Dou," as both are by the same filmmaker (Zhang Yimou), feature the same star (Gong Li) and have themes dealing with traditional Chinese sexism.

But "Raise the Red Lantern" is unique, essentially in its detailed look at the hazards of polygamy and the tragedies that ensue when squabbling between wives accelerates to unexpected proportions.

The story has 19-year-old Songlian leaving college after six months to become the fourth wife of an older, wealthy man. She does so reluctantly, after being coerced by her stepmother, following the death of her father.

When she arrives at the Chen family palace, she gets a house and courtyard of her own and soon learns that the husband is a stickler for tradition. He has red lanterns lighted around the house of the wife with whom he is spending the night, and that wife is the recipient of all kinds of special privileges.

That explains the competition among the first three wives - an older woman who is the first wife, a consistently cheerful woman who is the second and a very pretty, petulant former opera singer who is the third.

The first and third wives resent Songlian, though the second befriends her. And a jealous servant is thrown into the mix; she had hoped to become the fourth wife herself. But after a time, Songlian learns that things are not always as they seem, and the story takes on larger, tragic proportions as it progresses.

The performances, cinematography and attention to detail here are magnificent. The film is a bit slow in places (at a running time of more than two hours it could be shorter), but it's so involving that the audience probably won't mind.

"Raise the Red Lantern" is rated PG for implied violence and sex, and a couple of mild profanities.

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