Until the so-called Fifth Generation of film-makers came along in the mid-80s, most westerners thought of Chinese cinema in terms of strident propaganda films like The Red Detachment of Women. Yet China has been producing great films for longer than most of us imagine. Superb films like Xie Jin’s Two Stage Sisters were produced several decades before, and though Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and others seemed to be making a fresh start after the cultural revolution, they owed a debt to many others.
No film had a more startling effect in the west than Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern, which rushed Gong Li, a star after Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, into the superstar league. Li plays a student in northern China in the 20s who agrees to become the fourth wife of an ageing clan leader. Only 19, she finds herself confined to the old man’s palatial complex, where his other wives conspire with courtiers and intrigue is permanently in the air. The red lantern of the title is hung outside the rooms of whichever wife the clan leader presently favours, and it soon becomes clear that the only way the youngest one can compete is to provide good sex and feign pregnancy. Her power soon increases, since she is beautiful and not as innocent as we think, but the other wives’ intrigues and her own descent into paranoia lead inevitably to tragedy.
Yimou shot the film so that its rich colours and claustrophobic atmosphere matched the story perfectly, and it can also be viewed as a parable about the patriarchal, semi-feudal society of late 20th-century China. What’s more, he never shows us the old man, who remains a mysterious non-presence until the end.
The film was criticised for trying to appeal as much to westerners as to Yimou’s own countrymen, and was not approved of officially. But it remains a marvellously structured, richly imagined and well-acted piece of work, with a central performance that holds the attention throughout.
It is perhaps Yimou’s most lavish and stately film, quite unlike his others in style. It is also his most resonant. You have only to watch Gong Li being prepared for the marital bed to see how well the film captures the scent of sex, jealousy and impending disaster.
Yimou, who started as a cinematographer, and shot Yellow Earth for Chen Kaige (the first major success for the Fifth Generation), is capable of many styles. Red Sorghum might have been a western, while The Story of Qiu Ju had a touch of Ken Loach about it. But he remains a master of storytelling, with a distinctive ability to ally the personal to the political. If he has recently softened his approach, seemingly to curry favour with the authorities, he seldom fails to spike his tales with some criticism and a sharp eye for official hypocrisies.