Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Chinese Movies Without Martial Arts

I decided a few days ago that I want to start writing movie reviews again. I wrote a couple at Lion's Den some ways back, and I've been itching to do it again. In the future, I'll review the Vengeance Trilogy, recent films like Juno and Beowulf, and, eventually, Miyazaki's complete works for film. For now, though, I'll be giving my attention to a pair of Chinese films: Raise the Red Lantern and The Emperor and the Assassin.

Gong Li as Songlian
In Raise the Red Lantern, Gong Li plays Songlian, a young university student in the 1920s. Her father's untimely death leaves her family without any income, forcing her to abandon her studies and leaving her with little choice but to become the fourth wife of a wealthy landowner, who we know in the film only as the Master (Ma Jingwu). Each of his four wives has her own house and servants, and each night the Master indicates which wife he wishes to spend the night with by lighting a red lantern above her door.

By family custom, the four wives are meant to eat together every night and interact harmoniously, though it would be more accurate to characterize their relationships as civil, at best. First Mistress (Jin Shuyuan) is indifferent to Songlian; she is old and has an adult son, but the Master is only interested in his younger wives. Second Mistress (Cao Cuifen), Zhuoyan, has a young daughter; she immediately befriends Songlian and warns her about Meishan (He Caifei), the Third Mistress, a former opera singer and the mother of the Master's younger son. Immediately upon arrival, then, Songlian enters an insular world of subtle competition for the favour of the Master. Meanwhile, Songlian's servant Yan'er (Kong Lin) is not without her own motives.

Perhaps not surprisingly, all is not what it seems in the house. Songlian uncovers dark secrets and betrayals, affairs and hopeless dreams. In describing the film, it almost sounds languid and talky, yet director Zhang Yimou crafts each scene with such care and eye to detail that a superficially simple scene can take on harrowing drama. After Songlian's arrival at the Master's house, the entire film takes place within its many courtyards and walls. Throughout the camera looks down from the roof into the courtyards, lending a claustrophobic feel to the setting. Of particular note is how Zhang depicts the Master; he is seen only in wide shots, his voice heard, but his face left unseen. His presence is always noted, yet he is deliberately remote, someone whose favour is sought by the four women as an end in itself. There is no love here, just the competition. Without spoiling the twists of the plot, the film's ending is at least doubly tragic, but the greater tragedy is the situation itself.

The performances, not just by the incomparable Gong Li but by the other actors as well, are note-perfect and subtle. It's no wonder that Raise the Red Lantern is often hailed as Zhang Yimou's finest work. His distinctive visual style is evident throughout; the camera work is eye-catching but not distracting, with wide, medium, and close shots chosen carefully for each scene, lending the film a sumptuous visual appeal. It's simply riveting. It's unfortunate, then, that Zhang Yimou has spent much of the past several years making a martial arts "trilogy" of sorts: the decent Hero, the uneven but serviceable House of Flying Daggers, and the simply abominable Curse of the Golden Flower. While each of these films allowed Zhang to paint within increasingly colourful backdrops of costumes and sets, none made use of his strengths as a filmmaker, namely the bringing together of brilliant craftsmanship and authentic drama that is so exemplified by Raise the Red Lantern.


I had meant to review The Emperor and the Assassin in this post as well, but I believe I'll save that for another day, either tomorrow or later in the week.


Deborah said...

That sounds very interesting. I've read several books placed in India set within that very situation, but didn't know it was common in Chinese culture too.

Ron said...

I'll be dropping by more often. My all-time favorite film is Chinese (King of Masks) and it's going to be very welcome having some pointers to more.

Josh Gould said...

Well, thanks! I'll have to get cracking on some more reviews, though I might not have time in the next week. Hopefully soon though!