It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The fourth wife of the rich old man comes to live in his house against her will. She has been educated, and thinks herself ready for the wider world, but her mother betrays her, selling her as a concubine, and soon her world is no larger than the millionaire's vast house. Its living quarters are arrayed on either side of a courtyard. There is an apartment for each of the wives. She is quietly informed of the way things work here. A red lantern is raised each night outside the quarters of the wife who will be honored by a visit from the master.
So opens "Raise the Red Lantern," a Chinese film of voluptuous physical beauty and angry passions. It is one of this year's Academy Award nominees in the foreign film category, directed by Zhang Yimou, whose "Ju Dou" was nominated last year. This film, based on the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong, can no doubt be interpreted in a number of ways - as a cry against the subjection of women in China, as an attack on feudal attitudes, as a formal exercise in storytelling - and yet it works because it is so fascinating simply on the level of melodrama.
We enter into the sealed world of the rich man's house, and see how jealousies fester in its hothouse atmosphere. Each of the four wives is treated with the greatest luxury, pampered with food and care, servants and massages, but they are like horses in a great racing stable, cared for at the whim of the master. The new wife, whose name is Songlian, is at first furious at her fate. Then she begins to learn the routine of the house, and is drawn into its intrigues and alliances. If you are only given one game to play, it is human nature to try to win it.
Songlian is played by Gong Li, an elegant woman who also starred in quite different roles in Zhang Yimou's two previous films.