‘Raise the Red Lantern’ is a Chinese film that focuses on the new life of Songlian, who at the beginning of the film has just become the Fourth Mistress of a rich household. The plot of this film is far from cut and dry, with twists and turns, and occasionally confusing plot points too.
The most important characters of ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ are its female characters. ‘The Master’, as he’s referred to, is one of the few major characters who are male, and his face is never shown directly in shots. It is obvious that the avoidance of the Master’s face is purposeful, however there are a multitude of different reasons why this was implemented into the film’s cinematography. One possible reason could be an attempt to make the Master appear almost god-like by keeping him as a hidden figure lurking but never completely on screen. Another, and more likely, is to keep the focus on the Mistress’s of the household.
Each of the Mistresses are distinct and well thought out characters, you can sympathize with all of them to some degree. However, they all fall victim to one thing; The Gender Binary. Despite being independent and interesting individuals, they fight desperately for the love of Master, who controls their lives with his family traditions. This dynamic pits the mistresses against each other, all trying to sabotage one another in some way.
Whats interesting about a binary like this is that one would assume the women would band together to overcome such a boundary, however, throughout ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ they all try to use one another as stepping stones rather than allies. In the first half of the film, this is seen as nothing more than annoying competition, however by the end of the film its clear that everything could have been avoided only the relationship between the Mistresses and the Master were different. We’ve seen this type of competition among women all throughout history, and it does nothing but further strengthen the patriarchal system.
For the women of ‘Raise the Red Lantern’, there is nothing but suffering and unhappiness. All of which is inflicted not by the Master, but by the other women who they are supposed to consider sisters.