Raise the Red Lantern: Women against Women

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.

Raising the Red Lantern and the Lowering of Women

Directed by Zhang Yimou, Raising the Red Lantern is a film that follows Songlian as she is married to a man as his 4th wife and how she navigates her new life. 

As soon as Songlian is married she is thrust into this new life and we observe how she navigates and learns about her new life. This is where the audience can observe gender roles in action. While the men are out and about often not home doing activities unknown the women stay home and have their own activities. These activities are much different and can be observed as almost warfare between the women. In the film the mistresses plot ways to get the husband to stay with them. Songlian claims to be pregnant so the husband will stay with her and she hopes to eventually become pregnant. The 2nd mistress will betray the others to gain favor. Even the 3rd mistress will act sick or sing loudly to disturb the others. 

The film shows how the women have gone from university students and famous singers to fighting over a man. This shows the deep societal expectations on women at the time. The framing of the movie even shows the role women are trapped in. Songlian is often boxed in a room or closely trapped by a frame of a bed or door. This represents the role she is trapped in with how she can’t escape being a wife and mistress. Finally at the end of the movie she is not framed in this way. This is after she has been declared crazy and is let more roam free. While not a happy ending she has been freed in a way from the social constructs placed on her by society at the time. 

The audience is left feeling conflicted about how they should feel. Are they happy she has broken free in a way and does not just have to please the master. But she has seemingly gone mad wandering around and is left completely alone. Before she had servants and relative power. Now she is a wandering crazy person. This leaves the audience thinking deeply about the movie which accomplishes the task of the director in creating it.