I watched a movie last night.  I was called Raise the Red Lantern.  Planning to watch only the beginning because I had Saturday School the next morning, I began the movie only to know after the first moments I would not be able to watch the movie in more than one sitting.  The movie is transfixing, and if you do not find it absorbing from the beginning, it will probably be a movie you will not enjoy.

It begins with a face, a beautiful, angry, and sad face of a young Asian woman (a recent dropout from the university after her father’s death) that is discussing her marriage possibilities with her–to be labeled later–stepmother.  The dialogue is spoken dispassionately from the actor’s mouths, but the words and facial expressions are anything but.  Thanks to youtube, the clip of the first scene is below.

NOTE: There is also a trailer on YouTube, but I’m of the opinion hat it reveals too much.  I think it might be better to come into the movie knowing little, for it is not what will happen in the movie, but how it will happen in the movie that is most amazing.

Back to the summary:  The young girl is named Songlian, and she is wedded to an obviously wealthy man.  She walks to his estate, and the main house butler is surprised she did not wait for the wedding caravan.  The first hint that her independent, educated spirit is not in keeping with the traditions of the household.

As she is led through the estate, she is brought to the master’s first three wives: First Mistress, the eldest of the wives and mother of the eldest son–she is never with the master throughout the movie; Second Mistress, a kind woman with a sweet face, but a woman who is noticeably growing older; and Third Mistress, still young, still beautiful, and a former opera singer.  Our heroine is no longer Songlian, but the Fourth Mistress.  Along with meeting the other wives, she is also introduced to the ancient customs of the ageless household.  Most importantly, the red lanterns.  The mistress the master chooses to sleep with is honored by having red lanterns hung in her section of the house estate.  She also chooses the dinner menu.  She treated better by the household servants.  She is the woman in favor.

The rest of the movie is a battle of emotions between the women.  The master is often heard but not seen with any clarity.  The only male characters are the house butler, his aide in hanging the red lanterns, and the family doctor.  In thinking about this movie, the first adjective that sprung to mind was great. The second adjective was feminist. I’m not sure if it is a feminist movie, but for being a movie about the loves, betrayals, emotions, and actions of women who are pitted against each other to gain favor of the master and birth him a son, it certainly tends in that direction.  It is also based on the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong.  It is clearly a story about women.  Beyond that I will not say because while it may be a story bout women, I’m not sure it is a movie entirely about women.

It is definitely a movie about a house.  The film is almost entirely restricted inside the walls of the house with the exception of the first few minutes.  The house stands as an unchartable piece of architecture, seen from the roof to extend over the horizon in a maze of pathways and stairs and secret rooms.  Each room of the different mistresses is patently different and lavishly decorated.  The house acts as a character of its own, lived out most closely by the actions and reactions of the First Mistress–dominated by custom, lacking emotion.

For a movie dominated by red it is blatantly lacking in sensuality.  The sex is custom and formality.  A demand of the master, treated like a competition to be won by the mistresses.  It is an exceptionally beautiful film, and I cannot praise it highly.  It is immediately a movie I knew I wanted to own.  It is captivating.  Beyond that personal reaction, it is technically tight.  The actors are entirely controlled and (re)act with as much honesty and energy as I expect in real life.  The cinematography is exceptional.  The direction: flawless.

Visually stunning, entirely controlled.

Visually stunning, entirely controlled.