Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Hit Me with Your Best Shot: Raise the Red Lantern

I feel as if I need to keep reminding myself that this is not a dissertation nor a review, but a discussion on my best shot. If the submission on Serenity for Nathaniel's series was the best time I had watching a film to participate in this series, then this week’s entry for Raise the Lantern might be the most frustrating. The first thing I wanted to do when the credits rolled for Zhang Yimou film was to go back and watch it again – and I wish that time permitted me to. The film is saturated with colour and texture and as such presents an ostensibly perfect chance for a “best shot” excursion, but being so deliberately laboured in its advancement and so often ambiguous it also makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience. Even though I watched it, then, I feel a bit unworthy of actually discussing it because I have a nagging feeling I have missed much. But….onwards. (Spoilers ahead, tread cautiously.)

Songlian is our “heroine” (used very loosely) who becomes the fourth mistress of the Chen household. This is one of the first shots of the Chen’s house, and it’s curiously one which Yimou insists on revisiting. And, in that way, its effect becomes immediately as much about what Yimou is telegraphing as it is about sussing out what the viewer is feeling. To be explicit, I’d say Raise the Red Lantern would be a fine film to attach a psychoanalytical reading of not only of the characters and the creator but of the audience – it’s constantly forcing us attach meaning to images. 

When Songlian first arrives at the Chens she makes her way to what shall be her compartment. The image is stately, austere but opulent. There is an abundance of further shots taken from this specific angle but the next one which intrigues me is the one below.

The red lanterns have been lit to celebrate Songlian’s “pregnancy” and the use of colour and light is overpoweringly beautiful, but almost too beautiful. For one, we’re almost certain already that she’s not really pregnant which makes the lantern a lie and the disturbing state of affairs in the households has made the beauty of the lanterns dunned by the sadness they implicitly point to, hers alight but someone else's are dark.

When Songlian’s lie is revealed the lights are snuffed out and covered and we are presented with another image.
How barren, how sad and ugly everything looks now. This is, relatively, the same perspective from which we’ve seen the house before but the simple act of draping the lanterns in black makes it look – stately still, yes, but – hideous and repulsive in a way. What of it if such a simple act changes (or better – reveals) how barren the existence really is at the Chens?

 The lantern…. 
The music which accompanies its lighting unnerves me where it got to the point I think I was dreading it as much as the wives, and look at it – it’s nothing particularly special but it represents so much. And, then, two things capsize that notion for me. 

A beautiful image, right? 
And certainly evocative of something grand….but not really. This is Yan’er, the maid’s, room. She’s lit lanterns of her own volition and it threatens the way things are. What does it mean that a maid can light her own lanterns. “A maid’s a maid and a wife’s a wife”, is what Songlian shouts when she reveals Yan’er’s secret. She still hasn’t realised the ineffectuality of the lanterns….until….

My best shot – a beautiful image of an empty room, and an unfulfilled woman. The lanterns are raised and lit, yes, but it doesn’t mean anything.

When Meishan is killed, Songlian enters her room and lights the lanterns on her own making the men think that a ghost haunts it. But, what does the shot mean? Different things for different people, I’d assume. The lights are lit, the room is gorgeous, and the covers are on the floor but Songlian has done it all. The lighting of the lantern is something sacred, or is it? Anyone can do it, Yan’er did and Songlian does. I’ve heard people say that madness occurs when the mind is unable conceive “trite” notions of order and structure, and that concept would make sense here. As Songlian stands looking around the room she must have realised that the lanterns really are silly. The lighting of them is something “sacred”, but she’s just done it – and it wasn’t secret. They represent growth and good-luck, but they’re lighted and Meishan is still dead. And, I am attaching meaning (perhaps injudiciously) to the image but it seems to be Yimou’s intent. Songlian has “raised the red lantern” in the shot, and it looks beautiful – but what has come of it? Nothing but the realisation that everything is nothing..

This entry is part of Nathaniel’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series


Tim said...

Great across the board, but I wanted to mention that the second of your shots was my first-runner up. And since you mention on my blog that you regret having multiple shots, I want to disagree: I think that part of what makes your best shot so great is the way it builds and contrasts with the other ones you picked, and I am in love with the arguments you followed getting there. I've seen this movie three times now and still hadn't made some of those connections.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

tim not to sound obsequious, but thanks much for this comment because i kept rethinking so much of arguments i'd attached to his images because regardless of love or not, it’s impossible to deny how artistically rich the film is. and, that makes it so intimidating to analyse.

Paolo said...

The rooms are almost demonic and that aspect of it is highlighted when the guards go into Meishan's quarters and it looks like the facade is animated.

Or maybe that the shot is when Songlian realizes that she's at the same low level as Yan'er.

Kelley Marie said...

wow, wonderful. I'm here because Roger Ebert tweeted this link, and I can see why.