I’ve only seen one other Zhang Yimou film, his earlier work Red Sorghum, but from what I saw, there was a lot of promise, especially in the visual department. His other list film, Raise the Red Lantern, was longer than that one, so I went into it a little more ready to sit a while more through it. In my normal amount of research into each list film before I see it, I quickly gathered together a collective idea of what Raise the Red Lantern would be like; a sumptuous visual feast, though one that would ultimately be a little better off with some trimming around the edges, and that’s pretty much exactly what I got.
Songlian is a nineteen-year-old student in 1920s China, whose father dies and thus leaves his family (and Songlian) with no way to pay for her continuing education. Thus, she is essentially forced into marriage, becoming the Fourth Mistress of a wealthy master named Chen. Quickly, she realizes that the other three wives that have come before her all divide the time they spend with their master solely at his whim, and thus the game begins to scheme and manipulate each other in order to spend more time with the master themselves. First off, what I liked about the film, and what was immediately apparent: this film was hella pretty to look at. Every shot was composed like a still frame, the production value was excellent without being excessive, with lots of warm and earthy colors, and when the camera did move, it did so with great care as to keeping the structure of the shot as poetic as it could. All told, the cinematography was superb. That said, what I didn’t like: the film was ploddingly slow. Perhaps it was the extremely slow camera movements (if the camera was moving at all), or the far-away distance the camera seemed to be from most of the locations; either way, the film was a spoonful over two hours and it felt every bit of it, which was unfortunate. That, and the plot developments took their sweet time in, well, developing, and most of the time was spent looking at the nice visuals, which quickly grew tiring and thus the film was an exercise in patience I hadn’t had (nor did I feel like having) in a while.
After this was over, after first breathing a sigh of relief, I went through my mental list of what worked and didn’t work with me. After all my thoughts had settled, I found myself pretty much right in the middle; there was one major pro against one major con, and a few little ones on either side that all seemed to balance out. Not to mention the glowing reception this had garnered with other reviewers, as I found out when I went searching after this was over, and I was a little saddened that I didn’t feel the same way. Trim some of the fat out of it, I’d be all over this one, happily singing its praises. But as it is, it was just way too hard to get through, even being the visual treat that it was, and that’s not a good thing when it comes to my assessment of films. You might like this, you might not, you might want to give it a chance, you might not. The visuals are worth it, but the film as a whole might not be. It’s really up to you.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10