Zhang Yimou's 'Raise the Red Lantern' is a photographed story focusing on women's position and denial of freedom. A tragic tale concerning the life of a concubine, this film has a fascinating insight to the traditional Chinese culture in the 1920's.
Gong Li plays Song Lian, who is a young and educated Chinese University student. Being under pressure, her family was financially unstable and her only choice was to marry a wealthy man as a mistress. Her new home is pictured as a large enclosure filled with buildings and courtyards with no outside world and no escape. Although the wives were comforted with wealth and servants, their lives were controlled by the family customs and they had no power.
Married to become the fourth mistress; the first mistress was old and not part of the story, the second (MeiShan) was kind on the outside but evil on the inside, and the third was a jealous and stubborn opera singer. The role of the mistresses was only to serve the husband by spending the night with him. The master chooses someone each night to sleep with, by lighting the red lanterns inside and outside her house. As a family tradition, she would be given a foot massage. The competition for the massage and the master's attention was really the way to obtain power in the household, and so the rivalry continues...
The master is portrayed as a faceless man. It is a way of describing the typical 'men' as a merciless and cruel person with no respect for his wives. His excuses of spending time at night with his wives are only methods of raising a son.
Song Lian, who is the youngest and most attractive, became the first to rebel against the household rules. After she finds out about the second mistress's past, she knew MeiShan would try to ruin her chances of raising a son by winning the master's attention. Being punished for lying about her pregnancy; she felt unfair and started confessing other people's guilt, but subsequently led to their deaths. At the end, she witnessed the murder of the third mistress, and tragically became mentally unstable.
This film has demonstrated women's position before 1949. They were seen as servants for men and must obey their words. Women did not have freedom to which they married; they were unfavoured in education and were not permitted to work and vote. After marriage, they are not to love another man, or they will be severely punished. An example in the film has showed how Song Lian's master destroyed Song Lian's flute that belonged to her late father (which he thought it was from a lover). Women's appearance is expected to look attractive and they are prohibited to grow stronger and bigger than men. Therefore, they are encouraged to bind their feet and bodies, which will make them look small.
In past China, there were no women's rights. They were discriminated against freedom and being disloyal to their husband will lead to punishment and tragedy...