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Saturday, August 3, 2019


Phansi Ubuntu Art Museum will present a free screening or the movie Raise The Red Lantern on August 8, 2019.

The film by Zhang Yimou was released in 1991 and stars Gong Li in the leading role of Songlian. It was filmed in the Qiao family compound, near the ancient city of Pingyao, in Shanxi Province, and is noted for its opulent visuals, the use of rich colours and an architecture which has virtually disappeared from the current lexicon of Chinese-built culture. Although the screenplay was originally approved by the Chinese censors, the final version of the film was banned in China for a period.

The film is set in the Republic of China during the Warlord Era (1916–1928), before the Chinese Civil War. Songlian, a 19 year-old educated woman whose father has recently died and left the family bankrupt, is forced by her stepmother to marry into the wealthy Chen family, becoming the Fourth Mistress (or Third Concubine) of the household. Arriving at the palatial abode, she is at first well-treated, receiving sensuous foot massages and brightly-lit red lanterns, as well as a visit from her husband, Master Chen, the master of the house. He is a shadowy figure whose face is never clearly shown, thus introducing the main plot of the film, an examination of the class and gender politics inherent in a traditional polygamous Chinese marriage. This is not merely limited to the interplay between the wives who compete with each other for the role of “Favourite Mistress of the Household”, but also the servants, who effectively organise and control the daily running of the micro-community.

Songlian soon discovers, however, that not all the concubines in the household receive the same luxurious treatment. The master decides on a daily basis the concubine with whom he will spend the night; and whomever he chooses gets her lanterns lit, receives the foot massage, has her choice of menu items at mealtime, and gets the most attention and respect from the servants. Pitted in constant competition against each other, the three concubines are continually vying for their husband's attention and affections.

The First Mistress, Yuru appears to be nearly as old as the master himself. Having borne a son decades earlier, she seems resigned to live out her life, forgotten and always passed over in favour of the younger concubines. The Second Mistress, Zhuoyun befriends Songlian, compliments her youth and beauty, and gives her expensive silks as a gift. She also warns her about the Third Mistress, Meishan, a former opera singer who is spoiled and who becomes unable to cope with no longer being the youngest and most favoured of the master's playthings. As time passes though, Songlian learns that it is really Zhuoyun, the Second Mistress, who is not to be trusted; she is subsequently described as having the face of the Buddha, yet possessing the heart of a scorpion.

Songlian feigns pregnancy, attempting to garner the majority of the master's time and, at the same time, attempting to become actually pregnant. However, Zhuoyun is in league with Songlian's personal maid, Yan'er, who discovers the pregnancy is a fraud. Infuriated, the master orders Songlian's lanterns to be covered indefinitely with thick black canvas bags. Blaming the sequence of events on Yan'er, Songlian reveals to the house that Yan'er's room is filled with lit red lanterns, showing that Yan'er dreams of becoming a mistress instead of a lowly servant; it is suggested earlier that Yan'er is in love with the master and has even slept with him in the Fourth Mistress' bed.

Yan'er is punished by having the lanterns burned while she kneels in the snow, watching as they smoulder. In an act of defiance, Yan'er refuses to humble herself or apologise, and thus remains kneeling in the snow throughout the night until she falls sick, collapses and ultimately dies after being taken to the hospital. One of the servants tells Songlian that her former maid died with her mistress's name on her lips. Songlian, who had briefly attended university before the passing of her father and being forced into marriage, comes to the conclusion that she is happier in solitude; she eventually sees the competition between the concubines as a useless endeavour, as each woman is merely a "robe" that the master may wear and discard at his discretion.

On her 20th birthday, severely intoxicated and despondent over her bitter fate, Songlian reveals to Zhuoyun that Meishan has been having an affair with the family’s doctor. The lovers are caught together and following the old customs and traditions, Meishan is dragged by the servants to a lone room on the roof of the estate and is hanged.

Songlian, already in agony due to the fruitlessness of her life, witnesses the entire episode and is emotionally traumatized. The following summer, after the Master's marriage to yet another concubine, Songlian is shown wandering the compound in her old schoolgirl clothes, her sanity now gone.

Zhang Yimou’s Raise The Red Lantern is based upon the book Wives and Concubines by Su Tong. Music by Zhao Jiping. 125 min. Mandarin with English subtitles.

The film will be screened at Phansi at 17h30 on August 8. Screenings are free, donations are welcome. Phansi Museum is situated at 500 Esther Roberts Road, Durban.

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