IF there's one thing learned through this column, it's that no one does films on the quiet desperation of women like China.
The "trilogy" starring Wei Wei ("Spring in a Small Town," 1948), Ruan Lingyu ("The Goddess," 1934) and Gong Li ("Raise the Red Lantern," 1991) are powerful meditations on how women were subjugated in old China by the chains of family, sexist social customs and poverty - yet who possess inner strength.
These are not thin caricatures by any means, though, and that holds true of Gong's portrayal of the Fourth Mistress (Si Yitai). But her defiance, outbursts and ultimate tragedy are ultimately what we resignedly hope for.
"Raise the Red Lantern" begins with Gong being informed that with the recent passing of her father, her family is now in poverty. She is forced to take her position as Fourth Mistress in a household.
"Let me be a concubine," she says. "Isn't that a woman's fate?"
Immediately she runs into conflict: a servant at the compound reveals jealousy of what is perceived to be Gong's relatively privileged position; the Third Mistress (played by He Saifei) is upset about losing her spot as the newest mistress; and all are generally wary of a woman who possesses a mere six months of university study.
Perhaps they are right on this last point, because her questioning nature is in conflict with both of the monotony of her life, and its pettiness. Gong is beautiful, but she possesses the face of a tomboy encumbered by rigid formal attire.
Director Zhang Yimou ("Red Sorghum," "Hero," "To Live," "House of Flying Daggers," "The Flowers of War") emphasizes this with long static shots of the lush compound. All is beautiful at any given moment, but eerily still over the film's two-hour running time. The tension becomes unbearable.
Each day, Gong and the other mistresses are expected to wait by the doors to their bedrooms. The patriarch chooses which room he will stay in - the one that is lit by the red lantern in the title.
The First Mistress has resigned herself to life as an old maid, as her age has left her undesirable. The Second Mistress offers what seems to be helpful advice to the Fourth Mistress. The Third Mistress, a former opera singer, openly strategizes to regain her past favor.
The responses of the four mistresses ring of allegory, and reveal why, although the film is now recognized in China as a classic, it was initially banned.
Nevertheless, the beauty of "Raise the Red Lantern's" protagonist is too powerful to be left unrecognized, and too tragic to not be powerful.
'Raise the Red Lantern' (1991)
Date: April 18, 7:30pm
Where to watch: Vienna Cafe (25 Shaoxing Rd, near Ruijin No. 2 Rd)
What to see: In 1920s China, a 19-year-old girl (played by Gong Li) becomes the "Fourth Mistress" to a wealthy household with strict rules of conduct that go back generations. Her independence, attributed by others to her brief university study, creates conflict with the other mistresses, the patriarch, her servant and her life itself.