An image that is usually inconspicuous due to its ubiquitous presence is often dismissed as having multiple meanings or a potent symbol beyond its immediate aesthetic signifier. The long history of a bitter sweet relationship with our neighbouring country China has witnessed an array of assortments transported and diffused into ours as part of the cultural baggage. We have our own appropriated versions of Chinese cuisine at every nook and corner of the streets, fengshui merchandise displayed in our households, a mannequin of a laughing Buddha and most strikingly the Chinese lanterns as an important Oriental image to (re)create a temporal and imagined space within our culture. However, to locate within this image of a Chinese lantern a meaning(original or constructed? Oh wait, all meanings are constructs) is to situate it within a particular setting, thus enabling a particular discourse to perpetuate through reification.
Raise the Red Lantern is a film directed by Zhang Yimou in 1991, which deploys the singularly spectacular image of Chinese red lanterns as a leitmotif around which the entire narrative revolves. Based originally on a novel, Wives and Concubines by Su Tong, this cinematic adaptation takes us to China, during the Warlord Era(1916-1928) and showcases the social hierarchy, with intersections of class, gender and sexuality.During this period, marked by schisms between military cliques, each group or faction struggled to keep its authority and legacy untainted. The question of honour and customs became an integral part for the maintenance of tradition and traditional values. Interestingly, masculinity becomes synonymous with powerand has to be manifested and legitimised equally in the domestic sphere via the female body.
The film opens with the chief female protagonist, Songolian, as a nineteen year old girl, who has to come to terms with her social reality that deprives her of an education and subjects her to the fate of being born as a girl, destined to marry without her choice or consent. The death of her father forces her to unwillingly marry into the wealthy Chen family, showcasing the usual trope of a Patriarchal order, where a woman’s security and honour is safeguarded by the male. The scene then shifts to the Chen family, where Songolian enters the household, dressed as a simple young girl, but the shift into a new social order has important ramifications, that would seal her fate forever. Once into the palatial household, the doors and walls enclose on her the burden of maintaining a legacy, of being the forbearer of a social order as a mistress amongst many others to (re)produce power through a male progeny. She is introduced to us as the fourth mistress, but her status in a marital order is based on inequality and subjugation under the male dominion. What strikes us however, at the outset, is the grand ceremony with which the lanterns decorate the household. We soon realize the symbolic significance that the lanterns have within the household. It becomes a marker signalling not only prosperity, good omen and auspiciousness, but also a sign of authority via sexual prowess. The master of the Manor, Chen decides on his whim the mistress with whom he would spend the night, which in turn would be a signal for the chambers of the particular mistress to be decorated with lighted lanterns, and to get royal treatment. The lighted lanterns thus symbolise authority exercised by those who are virtually concubines pitted against each other in the competition for sexual legitimacy.
Sexual intrigue, sexual potency, jealousy, illicit relationships, decorum are some of the themes developed in this visual narrative, with the undercurrent of a hierarchy developed in almost all the relationships. Interestingly, the mistresses are vying against one another to assume superiority within the household, although they are virtually concubines, disposed at the service of the master. Moreover, their position as concubines, gives them the power to exercise authority over those who are lower in the social rung, like Songolian’s attitude against the maid Yan’er (who too dreams of becoming a mistress, against the social rule). It becomes a battle where class and gender intersect in complex and shifting patterns. Against the backdrop of familial rules and rituals, there is a brooding sense of secrecy, of an uncanny feeling that literally transforms the mansion into a monstrous presence, a prison, from which there is no escape.
We also are presented with a plethora of audio-visual tropes, of magnificent silk kimonos, decorated curtains, of porcelain crockery, of flutes, gramophones, and the shrill voice of the third mistressMeishan singing, that lurks even after her death, (as an indicator of the absent presences in the household) and finally the lighted lanterns, that complement the setting of an Oriental home to showcase how each of these things attain a meaning beyond their materiality. Moreover, we witness Meishan’s room as a reminiscence of a certain past which she clings on to, steadfastly. As an opera singer, her room is decorated with artefacts from an Opera, that almost transform her chamber into a museum, and Songolian’s flute that belonged to her deceased father,chime well with this settingto indicate the futile attempts to hold on to a certain past within a changing social order.
In this new household, Songolian finds herself estranged and unwillingly part of a relationship marked by deception and jealousy among the other mistresses. Facade is a very witty ploy used in the film, which marks not only the homosocial bonding between the female characters but also the element that cements the walls of the palace. Unable to coax her husband to sleep with her, and hence deprived of royal authority, she herself feigns pregnancy. It is by these deceptions, of Songolian, of Meishan(in her illicit relationship with the family doctor,Gao) and the deserted attic, around which the narrative revolves thatthe stark truths are revealed: Songolian’s fraud is discovered, Meishan’s affair exposed and the attic becomes the space where death looms large.
At the end, all of Songolian’s attempts become vain, and the moment of recognition or anagnorisis, is ironically premised on her loss of rationality, of her sanity. As she discovers the horrid truth with her own eyes, about master Chen being a murderer, sentencing Meishan to death, for breaking the proprieties of ‘social order’, of her inability to bring a male heir, of a life devoid of love, she recognises herself in the liminal space between life and death, sans sanity.The film ends with the entry of the new and fifth mistress who now would replace Songolian’s authority(if she ever possessed one) and thus power becomes contingent and constantly shifting in the changing matrix of experience. At the end, we as audiencestoo are left baffled, wondering about the indices of sexual politics and power within the familial space of home and tradition and the elusiveness of freedom, of choice within the demarcated dungeon of Patriarchy.