90s Far East Bracket: Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua (Raise The Red Lantern, 1991)

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The second film in my second match-up in the first round of the 90s Far East Bracket!

Written By: Ni Zhen
Directed By: Yimou Zhang

Loneliness is hard to put into words, especially loneliness as seen in a work of art. For that reason I’m not going to go into great detail describing what I found most compelling about Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua. Songlian is lonely throughout the film, but her loneliness changes. Initially she is lonely through emotion, as displayed in the scene with her mother. But as the movie progresses her loneliness changes, it no longer comes from the power of emotion but from the loss of emotion. By the films end she is as lonely as someone can be, emotionally, physically and mentally and it is impossible to put that type of loneliness into words. So, all I will say is that overbearing sense of loneliness was perfectly conveyed in Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua by Li Gong and as a result I was left taken aback by how frank the film portrayed loneliness, despair and resignation.

I have often talked about beautiful imagery or settings used to enhance the true ugliness that lay beneath and Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua is another great example of that. The color of the film is lush, with vibrant hues of yellow and red, as well as muted grays. The set design is superb, it looks like how I imagine 1920 China would look, not only that, it looks like how I imagine someone as cold to the rest of the world as the Master would have his mansion look. There are some movies that use their beautiful trappings to try and distract from the story being told, but Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua is a movie that uses beautiful accoutrement to enhance a great story.

At the center of Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua’s story is Li Gong. I don’t want to shortchange any of the other actors and actresses, because they are all very good. Cuifen Cao is especially delightful as the manipulative and deceitful second mistress. But, this is from beginning to end Li Gong’s film. I’ve never thought Gong gets the respect she deserves when it comes to her talents, her name is rarely, if ever, brought up in any best actress discussions. In Songlian she has created a difficult character, a tough cookie if you will. Early on you get the feeling that she may be playing Songlian for sympathy, but she quickly dispels that notion. Gong refuses to make Songlian a sympathetic character, by doing so she ensures that the actions of the house are paramount to any personal sympathies that usually develop for one character or another. Songlian isn’t nice, she is mean and nasty, but she can be nice, Gong makes her decidedly a real woman. Gong takes Songlian on a trip through machinations, political intrigue, loneliness and final breakdown that never seems forced or pressing the audience with melodrama.

I have already spoken about the beautiful colors and set design of Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua, but for as aesthetically pleasing as it is, it also impresses in its stylistic choices. Very early on Yimou Zhang and cinematographers Lun Yang and Fei Zhao develop a master shot that they will repeatedly come back to. It is an overhead shot of the mansion, it is very simple, yet it tells the entire story of the film. This mansion is a prison, that overhead shot lets you see the entire world of these people in one glance. They also employ brilliantly placed long shots of the path to the outside world, emphasizing that for these people something so close is in actuality an eternity away. But, the style choice that I was most fond of was the way in which they shot the Master. He is never in frame, his face is never highlighted, he is never “seen” in any fashion. This isn’t his tale, he is just the cruel overseer of the household, this is the tale of those who are beneath him. Zhang does a tremendous job of keeping the Master out of the picture and highlighting the disinterest the women harbor in him except for in political machinations.

There are themes and messages to be found in Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua. Some people relate it to modern day China, with the mansion representing China, the Master is the government and the inhabitants are the citizens of China, encumbered by antiquated rules and customs. Others liken the film to a critique of ancient China and its treatment of women, and on and on. Personally, while I did find meaning in Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua, I was more interested in the surface level story being told and how that affected the character of Songlian. Messages and themes are present, I was fond of the theme of loneliness, but this is a film that pushes the story to the forefront ahead of any deeper musings.

I once again have to thank Filmspotting for seeing this picture. I most likely would have seen it at some point, but my participation in their 90′s Far East Bracket pushed it to the top of my watch list. It’s an odd thing to say, but it was a pleasant experience watching Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua. For as depressing as it could be, as ugly as it was and as much as the ending is sad it was still a film that I loved taking in. My exposure to Chinese cinema is rather limited, my Far East experience is mostly limited to Hong Kong and Japan, but Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua is a great film regardless of what region of the world it is from. Watch it to see true loneliness put to celluloid, watch it to see a great performance from Li Gong, watch it to see dynamic hues of color, just watch it.

Rating:

****

Cheers,
Bill

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