Friday, July 16, 2010

Raise the Red Lantern (Da hong deng long gao gao gua)

Although not closely depicted visually, the food in Raise the Red Lantern plays an important role in the way life proceeds in the household of Master Chen (Jingwu Ma), a rich merchant of 1920s. While family tradition requires that all four wives dine with the master, the wife most recently favored with his overnight company (as indicated by the illumination of the red lanterns at her house) is allowed to choose the menu for the day. The meals are supposed to be a balance of fan (rice, noodles, or other cereals or starches) and ts’ai (main dishes), jeh (heating) and liang (cooling), sweet and sour, spicy and bland, crisp and soft, dark- and light-colored, boiled and stir-fried, steamed and grilled—that is, the yang and yin of the servings need to be brought into harmony—and excessive consumption of food or drink is forbidden. Songlian (Li Gong), the newest wife, asserts her independence when faced with the first communal meal, refusing to eat any of the meat dishes; when allowed to choose a vegetable dish from the list of offerings—fragrant mushrooms (shiitake) and thrice-fried mushrooms, chrysanthemum moss hair (seaweed with chrysanthemum petals), five-color vegetables (a combination chosen for their variations in color, texture, taste, and hot/cold balance), bird’s nests, hearts of cactus (perhaps dragon fruit), vegetarian hot-pot (allowing diners to cook their own vegetables in the steaming broth placed in the center of the table)—she requests spinach and bean curd (tofu) instead; establishing his ultimate authority, the Master has young bean sprouts (green mung beans or soybeans) added.
Thus begins the subtle power play: when given the opportunity, Third Wife (Saifei He) has only meat dishes prepared, and Fourth Wife leaves the table without eating. Later, Fourth Wife demands that she and the Master dine in her house, not at the communal table; when the others receive this news, Third Wife indicates that she too will take her meals in her own house when the Master is with her. To further her intrigues, Fourth Wife feigns pregnancy, and her supposed condition gives her a signal privilege: the Master’s constant companionship and the ability to take her meals in bed (lotus-seed soup, for fertility and longevity, fed to her by the spoonful by her maid Yan’er [Lin Kong]). Jealous of her mistress, Yan’er reveals the ruse; the Master is ruthless in his punishment, having Songlian’s red lanterns completely covered in black cloth and consigning her to eat all of her meals alone. When Songlian’s birthday rolls around, she “celebrates” to excess, becoming drunk and speaking aloud other secrets that destroy any remaining balance within the household. Appalled by what has happened, Songlian completes her isolation from her “sisters” by losing herself in insanity.


Released 1992
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Written by Ni Zhen, based on the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong

Starring Li Gong as Songlian (Fourth Wife), Saifei He as Meishan (Third Wife), Cuifen Cao as Zhuoyan (Second Wife), Shuyuan Jin as Yuru (First Wife), Jingwu Ma as Master Chen, Qi Zhao as Housekeeper, Lin Kong as Yan’er, Zhihgang Cui as Dr. Gao, and Chu Xiao as Feipu

Awards: 1993 Argentinean Film Critics Association Silver Condor Award for Best Foreign Film; 1993 BAFTA Film Award for Best Film not in the English Language; 1992 David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Film; 1993 Hundred Flowers Award for Best Actress (Li Gong); 1993 Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Film; 1993 London Critics Circle Film Award for Foreign Language Film of the Year; 1992 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Cinematography; 1993 National Society of Film Critics Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film; 1992 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Language Film; 1991 Venice Film Festival Elvira Notari Prize and Silver Lion, both for Zhang Yimou.



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