Raise the Red Lantern offers a view of life within a closed, dictatorial social community. Much of the film deals with the ever-shifting balance of power between the various concubines. Beauty and sexual appeal are secondary attributes in a battle of wits that demands guile and duplicity. Bearing a male child is more critical to each woman’s standing than possessing a pleasing countenance. While the master’s favor determines which of his wives commands the most power, Zhang illustrates how easily he can be manipulated.
While that way of life may no longer seem to be relevant in the modern world, the film clearly has a point to make about the role of women in modern Chinese society where education for women is still a luxury that many families cannot afford and marriage is consequently their only career option. certainly has plenty to say about the roles of men and women, and it is here in the realm of human interaction that the film most successfully achieves its aims.With tremendous force and at the same time delicacy, Zhang delineates the power battles between Songlian and the Master, the schemes and counter machinations the Fourth Mistress embarks upon with the other wives and her attempts to dominate her maid Yang – a girl every bit as proud and headstrong as herself. One obvious theme in this film (as well as several others directed by Zhang Yimou) is subjugation of women.This film cries out loudly against the subjugation of women and, more broadly, the subjugation of individuality by age-old repression traditions maintained by patriarchy. Although the specific variety of subjugation presented in Raise the Red Lantern may be largely an issue of the past, subjugation continues today in many other ways and in many places. The beauty of the lush apartments of the wives of the Chen household remind us that subjugation is not limited, by any means, to squalid environments.
It is interesting, I think, that each of the three older wives, in this story, reserve their strongest jealousy and hatred for the wife most immediately below them, she being the one that first posed the threat of displacement from an earlier position of preeminence. We see amply illustrated, here, the hazards of polygamy. What some will find most disturbing about Raise the Red Lantern is the ease with which the victimized individuals have been manipulated into active participation in their own subjugation.It begins when Songlian chooses to trade her matrimonial freedom based on a short-term need to gain independence from her stepmother. It continues when she unwittingly buys into the game of duplicity and intrigue, allowing jealousies and anger to fester. The wives make enemies of one another, unable to understand that they are all victims together.
Human life is full of examples of co-victims being turned against one another.