A juxtaposition of festive music and prime actress Gong Li’s tragic monologue welcomes viewers to the cinematic masterpiece that is Raise the Red Lantern by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, one of the films to be screened at the School of Design and Arts (SDA) cinema this September. As this month’s lineup of movies explores different takes on oppression, Zhang’s 1991 drama unfolds an intriguing allegory of greed and deception set in 1920s China.
Based on author Su Tong’s novel “Wives and Concubines,” the film centers on the four mistresses of a wealthy master as they compete for his affection, as well as for superiority and power in his palatial residence. Beyond the gripping plot, the movie was certainly a visual feast. As a winner of the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Cinematography in 1993, Zhang succeeded to leave the audience in awe with his composition of each frame and magnificent use of color, making every scene vital to telling a story that goes beyond just romance and sex.
By tackling the concubine system in 1930s China, Raise the Red Lantern offers viewers a peek into a life of oppression led by those who aren’t even aware of it. The patriarchal customs long established in the film’s depicted society reduced women merely to the pleasure and male children they could provide. Although the movie must be commended for portraying its female characters as multifaceted and independent instead of weak and helpless, it sheds light on another issue: the conflict of an oppressive system imposed on people who, instead of fighting against it, become its blind followers and reinforcers.
Throughout the film, it was made clear the young protagonist and fourth mistress Songlian sensed the flaws of a society where wealth and privilege were in the hands of men alone. But it was also one of the older wives who dismissed the younger one’s displeasure and even called her a fool for trying to defy the rules in the house. Unfortunately, this constant invalidation led to Songlian’s acceptance of those unjust fallacies and eventually her insanity once the sickening truths of their society were uncovered towards the movie’s ending.
Today, this tale is a sad reality. In a time when declaration of a nationwide Martial Law doesn’t sound too farfetched, it’s essential for Filipinos to be aware of the future society we’re creating if we do not oppose the injustices happening now. With all the tragedies reported in the news lately, it may be true that the country we call home is no longer a sanctuary, but a fraught site. Raise the Red Lantern is proof that being silent and ignorant does more harm than good, for both the individual and his community. It is with every right that we take the step of defiance—a step towards the good and the truth.
Raise the Red Lantern will be screened at the SDA cinema on Sept. 20. Curated by filmmaker and Benilde faculty Jan Philippe Carpio, this month’s diverse lineup of movie screenings, which also includes 1981 Filipino psychological horror movie Kisapmata, 2011 Iranian documentary This Is Not a Film, and 1976 Spanish drama film Cria Cuervos, explores metaphors and accounts of life under a dictatorship. The screenings are free and open to the public.
For full schedules and further details, check out the Museum of Contemporary Arts and Design’s official website.
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