*** (A must-see)

Directed by Zhang Yimou

Written by Ni Zhen

With Gong Li, Ma Jingwu, and He Caifei.

Just five years ago Zhang Yimou made an auspicious debut on mainland China’s movie scene with Red Sorghum. Strikingly photographed and with sophisticated pacing, it celebrated patriotic resistance (against Japanese invaders during World War II), ribald humor, and illicit sex on a scale rarely seen in a country still recovering from Maoist puritanism. Not surprisingly, the colorful pastoral epic–which takes place in the same locale as Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth, on which Zhang worked as cinematographer–impressed audiences and confounded Chinese government officials. Its jingoism was no doubt welcomed–ironically the title song later became a popular anthem for protesters at Tiananmen Square–but the naturalistic acting styles, especially that of the female lead Gong Li, must have seemed at once unsettling and titillating. Neither an ingenue nor a noble sufferer–two common female archetypes in Chinese melodrama–Gong’s character, the young widow of a wine maker, displayed a spunkiness that recalled the heroines championed by leftist actors in 1930s Shanghai. For her, liberation from feudal strictures meant frank expressions of sexual fulfillment in the arms of a hunky peasant. Yet she dies in the end–a rebel fated to be a martyr, forced to pay for her “sins.”

A variation on this daring prototype was presented in Zhang’s Ju Dou two years later. (As far as I know, an interim work, an action thriller called Operation Cougar, hasn’t been shown outside Asia.) Gong once again portrayed a strong-willed woman married to a much older man she doesn’t love, a wealthy silk merchant. Chafing under the man’s authoritarian grip, she takes up with his sensitive and virile nephew–only to be tragically repudiated by conventional morality. This time around the Chinese government recognized the film’s subversive commentary and imposed a ban, though it couldn’t prevent the Japanese-financed film from being shown abroad. (Zhang’s ongoing extramarital affair with Gong, a source of gossip for the Chinese public, also irritated officials.) No longer willing to work within China’s stifling studio system, Zhang turned entrepreneur and arranged for funding for his latest and boldest work, Raise the Red Lantern, from Taiwan investors by way of Hong Kong. (Which is why the film represented Hong Kong and not China in this year’s best-foreign-picture Oscar derby.) His executive producer is also Taiwanese–Hou Hsiao-hsien, himself a filmmaker of formidable talents.

The script of Red Lantern was written by Ni Zhen, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy who taught many of China’s new-wave filmmakers, Zhang included, right after the Cultural Revolution. Much of the script, I’m told, stays true to its source, a novel titled Wives and Concubines by a literary editor. When the book was published in June 1989 during the height of the Tiananmen protests, it created a stir. An example of the time-honored Chinese literary tradition of social criticism disguised as historical parable, it critiques the past but with an eye on the present. The sly parallels between the kowtowing behavior of Communist Party apparatchiks and the subtle and destructive power play among the women in a landlord’s household are meant to be knowing winks. Zhang said of the novel’s appeal, “It addresses the issue of infighting, something inherent in the Chinese feudal mentality.”

The mold is hard to break. The independence of Songlian, Red Lantern’s feisty and stoic protagonist (in a nuanced and understated performance by Gong), is established early on. But she is forced to abandon her university education because of her father’s death, and then chooses concubinage to a rich landowner over what would have been an impoverished marriage to any man from her own class. Deliberately missing the bridal sedan sent to pick her up, she walks to the Chen family compound by herself. The latest addition to Chen’s seraglio, she embodies youth, education, and modernity–an exotic commodity in 20s China prized also for her acceptance of a traditional subservient role. After her first night with Chen–a passionless encounter–Songlian is introduced to her rivals: Yuru, the pious and serene matriarch, the “big sister” who came from a proper background and acquitted her duty by giving birth to a male heir; Zhuoyun, the outwardly amiable but secretly ambitious second mistress; and the young and headstrong Meishan, who was once a celebrated opera singer. They all covet the master’s nightly conjugal visits–not so much for the sexual pleasures (except perhaps the rigorous foot massage that substitutes for foreplay) as for the myriad privileges they can expect in the days after. Chen signals his preference by having servants light rows of red lanterns in front of the quarters where he plans to spend the night–an elaborate custom of the imperial household copied by provincial gentry.

There are signs in the early scenes that Songlian, given her education and disposition, might stay above the fray. Zhang even leads us to hope that she could be a catalyst for sisterly solidarity. Instead, she too is drawn into the vortex of vengeful, and sometimes comical, rivalries. At first she jostles for attention with Meishan, then she uncovers a conspiracy against her instigated by Zhuoyun, whom she’d considered a friend and who had the help of Yan’er, the pathetic and jealous maid who wishes only to take over Songlian’s place in the master’s bed. The sense of betrayal initiates a series of events in which Songlian’s willful streak shatters the surface harmony and turns destructive: faking pregnancy to monopolize Chen’s attention, ordering meals to be served in her own chambers, berating Yan’er in front of the entire household. In disgrace, she orders wine and gets drunk (breaking a taboo) and proceeds to reveal the clandestine affair Meishan is having with the family doctor–with disastrous results. In the end the age-old rules and customs claim another victim, and Songlian is defeated, driven mad partly by her own transgressions and partly by the forces that made those transgressions inevitable.

Unlike most melodramatic films from China–most notably those of veteran director Xie Jin–Red Lantern refrains from florid gestures. For the most part Zhang keeps the camera steady, observing with emotional distance and quiet irony. (The muted mise-en-scene might have been influenced by producer’s Hou’s austere style.) The master Chen is never shown in close-up, his face never revealed, yet his presence, conveyed by his booming voice, is palpable even in scenes not involving him.

As usual with Zhang, the drama–Songlian’s humiliating spiritual descent–unfolds according to a color scheme: the fiery red of summer gives way to the desolate white of winter, a progression that parallels another visual metaphor of the bright blaze of the lanterns replaced by the black sheaths that cover them after Songlian’s downfall. (According to one of Zhang’s collaborators, the film was shot in Technicolor–China has the world’s last Technicolor lab. It was printed on Eastman stock, but most of the richly saturated hues still come across vividly.)

The sense of imprisonment is reinforced by the rigid, square architecture of the Chen castle (an imposing edifice in northwestern China constructed in the 19th century by an aristocratic family), in which each woman maintains her own perfumed quarters for the delectation of the master. Less obvious is the cycle of seasons: one year after Songlian’s arrival in the summer, another bride has come to replace her. In close-up, the newcomer looks into the camera bewildered and apprehensive. Her fate may not be any better than Songlian’s. Zhang’s pessimistic outlook is underscored by his skipping spring, the season of hope, and by his superimposing the dazed face of Songlian over that of the newcomer. While the casualties of infighting are swept away by new players with the regularity of the seasons, the authoritarian power structure continues to rule as it has for ages.

Ultimately Raise the Red Lantern is a damning parable about China’s internecine politics. (One of the modern Chinese terms for nation, after all, includes the ideogram for “family.”) In the center of Beijing the Forbidden City was for centuries the site of countless palace intrigues and sexual politics that capriciously shaped the course of China. Off to one side of it is Zhongnanhai, a vast, well-insulated compound that houses the present-day power elite. Largely impenetrable to outside influences, it too has been a battleground for the political squabbles among Communist Party leaders–from the fall of the Gang of Four to the maneuvers that ended in the Tiananmen massacre. The film’s final lingering image is of Songlian pacing the courtyard like a caged animal–like the political dissidents who tried to change the rules of the game. In China, Zhang seems to suggest, the price for rebellion and transgression is still death or madness.