Home > Reviews > RAISE THE RED LANTERN – Zhao Jiping


February 4, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Following the enormous international critical success of his film Ju Dou in 1990, director Zhang Yimou sought a new collaboration with its beautiful star Gong Li. He was intrigued by the 1990 novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong, and hired screenwriter Ni Zhen to adapt it to the big screen. Zhang’s vision was to provide a stunning visual beauty, which bathed the viewer with crimson auras, graced with Gong Li as the film’s focal point. He submitted the finished screenplay, entitled Dahong Denglong Gaogao Gua or Raise the Red Lantern, to Chinese censors, which gave the project the green light without edits. Zhang proceeded to assemble a splendid cast anchored by the gorgeous Gong Li as Fourth Mistress Songlian, and who, after this film, would rise to become China’s leading film star. The film is set during the Warlord era of China, circa 1920. Songlian is an intelligent nineteen-year-old young woman pursuing a college education. It comes to pass that her life dreams are derailed when her father dies unexpectedly, leaving a bankrupt estate. To avoid liquidation of the family estate, Songlian is sold off by her stepmother to a wealthy land lord to become his fourth wife. While her initial reception by her much older husband is lavish, she soon discovers the grim realities of her gilded cage existence. Each night the Lord would order a red lantern hung in front of the enclosure of the wife he is honoring with his company. What Songlian discovers is intrigue, born of a fierce and toxic competition for Master Chen’s time and affection. The winner was rewarded with a foot massage, the decision of the next day’s meal menu, as well as enhanced status, attention and respect from the servants. When Songlian feigns pregnancy to gain Master Chen’s favor, she is betrayed by her handmaiden Yan’er and Second Mistress Zhuoyun, which results in her disgrace, and denial of the red lantern. Sadly, over time, her isolation and lack of fulfillment leads to despair and ultimately, madness.

Despite initial approval of the screenplay by the Communist Party Censor Board, the finished film was inexplicably denied domestic distribution for several years. Thanks to very favorable worldwide reception, the film exceeded its production costs and was a commercial success. It was also a near universal critical success and earned one Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Today it is recognized as one of the finest films of the Chinese cinema and the 1990’s, a film of great emotional power, abounding in pathos, and draped in truly peerless, breath-taking cinematic beauty.

Zhang had enjoyed his two previous collaborations with composer Zhao Jiping, Red Sorghum in 1988 and Ju Dou in 1990, and he was the natural choice for the composer assignment. Zhao realized immediately that the film offered a compelling narrative where we see the intersection of potent cultural and emotional drivers including; ritual, patriarchy, hierarchy, jealousy, envy, and most importantly, the wielding of, and the illusion of power. Also impactful was Zhang’s perspective, and construct of the film. The film is viewed from the feminine perspective and Zhao understood that his music would also have to flow from this perspective. Also, Zhang chose to use seasonal chapter-like divisions, which is displayed whenever the screen fades to black showing just the word summer, autumn, or winter. By dividing the film into chapters/seasons, he establishes throughout the film a narrative arc that evolves discreetly with the passage of time. Given Zhang’s vision, Zhao made the stylistic choice to use traditional Chinese musical techniques and rhythms, which included percussion, female chorus and vocal chanting, with string and woodwind carried melodies. He also made the creative decision to join occidental and oriental sensibilities, infusing the classical western orchestra with traditional Chinese instruments, which included the banhu two-string fiddle, the bawu xun clay flute, the xiao bamboo flute, the sheng free reed woodwind, the bolanggi pellet drum, the bangzi high pitched wood block, the dagu (a large drum played with two sticks), two sizes of gongs, and three sizes of cymbals.

In traditional Chinese opera, loud percussion opens the narrative and it does so with the film. It also serves as the essential thread of Zhao’s tapestry, which weaves together and provides continuity among the chapters. The score’s Main Theme is the highly percussive and rhythmic Theme for the Red Lantern. At its core is symbolizes cycles of unfoldment found in the daily ritual of raising the Red Lantern, but it also speaks to the cycle of the seasons. Songlian’s Theme serves as her identity, but also speaks of her longing for her idyllic youth and father’s love. Within its notes it reveals her aspirations for the future. Yet it also informs us of her love of Feipu, someone her own age, which would offer hope and freedom from the unfulfillment and desolation of her subjugation. A wistful solo bamboo flute so full of yearning carries its articulation eloquently. There are two relationship themes; the Struggle Theme speaks to Songlian’s fierce competition with Third Mistress Meishan, a young, proud and beautiful Opera singer. A soaring lyrical women’s chorus captures Meishan’s beauty and eloquence of her operatic gift. The second or Betrayal Theme speaks to Songlian’s adversarial relationship with her handmaiden Yan’er, who conspires with Second Mistress Zhuoyun to betray her. Here the women’s chorus is soft, and disarming, belying her sinister designs.

Essential to Zhao’s soundscape are the operatic vocals provided by Meishan, the third mistress. On three occasions we are graced by her sterling vocals. We feel in the notes a thirst, a deep yearning for freedom. She drapes us in sadness informing us that beneath her confident smile lays a broken spirit. Most important however is the use of vocal chanting in Zhang’s narrative. The Gilded Cage Theme permeates the film and consists of female voices repeatedly chanting the phrase “Lon ge li ge long,” thus declaring the Confucian patriarchal cultural subordination of, and contempt for, the inferiority of women. Its versatility is quite amazing as it is used to underpin many different emotions including lust for the Red Lantern, suspense, jealousy, betrayal and desolation. It also serves as a harbinger of death. At times Zhao renders the voices ethereally gracing the estate’s beautiful interiors, but we should note that this is both incongruity and juxtaposition in that it belies the suffocating repression that is life within the gilded cage. Lastly we have the Wooden Hammer’s Theme, which is emoted by the rhythmic pounding of wooden hammers. The music is used to support the foot massages earned by the recipient of the Red Lantern. Yet I discern that its usage operates on two levels, the external and obvious reward of the actual foot massage, but also internally informing us of the wife’s pride in her elevation in status, as well as her unspoken sexual desires.

The animated percussion, rattles and rhythms of the Red Lantern Theme support “Opening Credits,” and Zhao firmly establishes the narrative and tone of the film. The opening scenes reveal a monologue by Songlian as she sadly accepts her fate to live as a concubine for an aged wealthy landowner. This cue is presented in film sequence, which interrupts the album’s cue #1 presentation. Our story begins with the display of “Summer” on the screen supported by the percussive rhythms of the Red Lantern Theme. Returning to cue #1, at 0:43 we segue into “Prologue” where Zhang’s film speaks volumes without the uttering of a single word of dialogue. We see a wedding caravan supported by a jubilant and celebratory traditional Chinese Wedding song. A sullen Songlian however is seen walking in the opposite direction of the caravan, unwilling to surrender to her fate. The juxtaposition of music and imagery is brilliantly conceived. At 2:04 we segue into “Zhouyun,” a cue that is attached to a scene later in the film, which I will discuss later. We conclude at 2:23 with “Lanterns” where the ritual lighting and hanging aloft of the red lanterns unfolds to the festive percussive rhythms of the Red Lantern Theme.

“First Night With Master” is supported by the chanting of the Gilded Cage Theme as Songlian is forced to endure her first night with Master Chen. The theme perfectly captures her circumstances. At 0:45 we segue into “Alone On First Night” atop a gong strike, which ushers in a sad choral rendering of the Betrayal Theme as Meishan feigns illness to lure Master Chen from Songlian’s wedding bed. As she looks forlornly in the mirror the chanting of the Gilded Cage Theme speaks to her plight. At 1:41 a gong strike ushers in a segue into “Second Night,” which is supported by interplay of the Struggle and Betrayal Themes as Songlian endures her second night with Master Chen. We conclude at 2:27 with “Third Night” where Meishan’s operatic singing on the enclosure’s rooftop provokes Songlian to leave the Master’s bed and seek her out. Interplay of the Struggle and Betrayal Themes support her progress with the cue culminating on Meishan’s vocals. “The Record” reveals Songlian joining Meishan and two gentlemen callers for a game of Mahjong. Zhao supports the scene diegetically with Dr. Gao placing a record on a phonograph, which plays an actual operatic performance by Meishan. The music offers her classic Chinese operatic vocals supported by a small ensemble of musicians. The music is festive and bright, which belies Songlian festering emotional discontent, yet speaks to Meishan’s flirtations when Songlian sees her foot rubbing Dr. Gao’s leg when she bends down to retrieve a fallen Mahjong piece.

The display of “Autumn” ushers in the second season/act of our story, supported once again with the percussive rattles and rhythms of the Red Lantern Theme. “Flute Solo” offers a score highlight, which reveals Zhao’s mastery of his craft. Songlian is drawn to the sweet sound of a solo flute delicato playing a tender, and beautifully alluring melody. She comes upon Master Chen’s handsome son Feipu and we see in their eyes an instant connection and unspoken attraction. Sadly, the attraction is forbidden, she being the master’s fourth mistress and he being the master’s oldest son. After his mother, the first mistress call him, he tells her he has to go. As they depart we see them exiting opposite doors of the room as their life paths take them in opposite directions. Brilliant is Zhang’s cinematography, and how Zhao transmutes the melody to reflect the encounter, providing a sweet and gentle allure for the meeting, and sadness for the parting. The confluence of cinematography, acting and music for this scene is wondrous! In “Zhouyun,” we have a revelatory scene with a devastating outcome. Songlian cannot find her beloved flute gifted to her by her father and accuses Yan’er of the theft. She drags Yan’er to her quarters, which is decorated with red lanterns and searches her belongs. She finds to her horror a doll bearing her name stuck with pins, in effect cursing her. Knowing that Yan’er is illiterate, she threatens to reveal the red lanterns unless she discloses which mistress wrote her name on the doll. When she discloses the name of Zhouyun, Songlian is devastated. The Betrayal Theme informs us of her Zhouyun’s duplicity and ushers in the mocking chanting “Lon ge li ge long” of the Gilded Cage Theme.

“Births – The Peking Theme” offers a poignant score highlight where music and film narrative achieve a perfect pairing. The scene supports Meishan’s bonding with Songlian as she relates that Zhouyun is the true enemy, not her. As she tells the story of her pregnancy she informs Songlian that Zhouyun tried to poison her and cause a miscarriage. When that failed Zhouyun took medicine to induce birth so her son would be born before Meishan’s. She failed to deliver first, and Meishan rewarded Master Chen with a son, while Zhouyun delivered a “useless girl”. Zhao supports the pathos of Meishan’s tale with a evocative choral lament, providing one of the score’s finest moments. “Pregnancy” reveals Songlian fraudulently claiming to be pregnant to gain power over the other mistresses. Master Chen is jubilant and orders red lanterns to be hung day and night in her residence to bestow longevity to his son. The Red Lantern Theme resounds to support the ritual and flows seamlessly into a new season, “Winter” where the Red Lantern Theme is sustained. When Yan’er finds menstrual blood on one of Songlian’s white pants she informs Zhouyan who asks Master Chen to have Dr. Gao examine Songlian under the false pretense that she is concerned for her health. The examination reveals her fraud and Songlian is punished by Master Chen who orders all her red lanterns covered in black mourning drapes.

We return to the “Pregnancy” cue and at 0:17 we segue into “Yan’er’s Punishment”. Songlian knows that Yan’er betrayed her and exacts a terrible revenge. She throws all the red lanterns hidden in Yan’er quarters into the courtyard exposing her presumption to become a mistress. The lanterns are set aflame and Yan’er is forced to kneel in the snow and repent her sins, which she refuses to do, finally collapsing hours later. Zhao supports the humiliation scene with the Red Lantern Theme. The Gilded Cage Theme is rendered as a sad rapid chant that is not presented on the album, which supports Yan’er’s suffering in the cold snow. Yan’er catches pneumonia and Master Chen orders her taken to hospital. The Betrayal Theme supports the scene as Songlian watches. The album does not include a cue with this music. “The Seasons” reveals Zhouyun’s ascendency thanks to Songlian’s fall from grace. The Wooden Hammer Theme joins with the Red Lantern Theme to mark her as Master Chen’s favorite mistress. “Ghost” offers a haunting cue as we see Songlian relating to Meishan her complete dissatisfaction with her life here, suggesting that hanging herself would offer a better fate. A solo female vocal sings a wordless song filled with a sadness, which cannot be assuaged.

In “Young Master Returns” Songlian celebrates her 20th birthday with some wine, and becomes drunk. Feipu has returned home and the maid asks him to look in on Songlian. She is despondent and rejects a birthday gift from him. As he departs their eyes lock and her flute born theme reprises, yet it is draped with sadness, as Feipu is unattainable. At 0:17 we segue into “Meishan’s Punishment” and Songlian’s flute born theme reprises in the aftermath of her drunken disclosure that Meishan has her doctor friend, Zhouyun has Master Chen and she has nothing. She has unbeknownst to her sealed Meishan’s fate with the disclosure to the treacherous Zhouyun. In “Realization” Songlian see’s Meishan being dragged out and is devastated when Zhouyun informs her that she disclosed it in her drunken rant. Master Chen’s men caught Meishan and Dr. Gao in bed together in the town’s hotel. The Struggle Theme supports the pathos of the moment, rendered as a heart-wrenching sad choral lament. “House Of Death” reveals Songlian covertly watching Master Chen and his men take a bound Meishan to the rooftop death shack. After they leave she approaches the shack supported by the frightful rapid chanting of the Gilded Cage Theme. A she discovers the gruesome murder she screams out repeatedly “Murderers!”

In “Meishan Sings” Songlian extracts revenge on the Chen household by covertly lighting all the red lanterns in Meishan’s residence. The servants are frightened and when they enter the room Songlian turns on a phonograph that sends Meishan’s operatic voice resounding through the complex. Everyone is frightened and flees, believing her enclosure to be haunted. Zhao joins her vocals with the Red Lantern and Wooden Hammer Themes to achieve a powerful confluence. What is striking here is how Zhao has transformed Meishan’s singing. Gone is the sadness of a broken soul yearning to be free, replaced now with happiness and joy, thus informing us that she has at last found peace. In “Next Summer” the festive and celebratory Wedding Song is reprised, as the Fifth Mistress is welcomed into the estate. At 2:01 the Red Lantern and Wooden Hammer’s Themes join to affirm her status as the new bride of Master Chen. “Fifth Mistress” reveals a women’s wordless chorus singing solemnly as the Fifth Mistress is prepared for Master Chen. They inform us that from death, a new cycle unfolds, thus sustaining the household traditions. We conclude with “Songlian’s Madness” where we see Songlian dressed as a child with ponytails wandering the estate with a vacant affect, as she has descended into madness. The desolation of the “Lon ge li ge long” chanting of the Gilded Cage Theme carries her tragic demise. At 1:41 we segue into the “End Credits” atop the Red Lantern Theme with interplay of the Gilded Cage Theme, which ends with a sad lament.

Raise The Red Lantern will no doubt challenge the sensibilities of film score lovers conditioned to western orchestral sensibilities. Zhao fully employed the traditional Chinese idiom for this effort, embracing wholeheartedly the classic sensibilities of the Peking Opera. The music is rich ethnically with a broad array of percussion instruments, rattles, gongs, distinct rhythms and vocals, both wordless and as songs. Zhao was tasked with supporting the rituals, traditions and culture of patriarchal Confucianism, where women are commodities used solely for a man’s pleasure and the need to produce sons. Viewed through the women’s eyes, Zhao’s music informed us of their plight, and enhanced the powerful emotional drivers on display. The ritual of raising the red lantern, the foot massage of the prospective winner, Meishan’s sterling vocals and the oppressive desolation of the Gilded Cage Theme brought Zhang’s narrative to life, often achieving a wondrous confluence with his cinematography. This score really demonstrates how music can enhance, empower and elevate a film. I consider it to be a gem from the Orient, a Bronze Age classic and highly recommend it for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a Youtube link to Songlian’s wondrous flute theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYZ3V0hhZII

Buy the Raise the Red Lantern soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Opening Credits/Prologue/Zhouyun/Lanterns (3:05)
  • First Night with Master/Alone on First Night/Second Night/Third Night (3:19)
  • Summer (0:28)
  • Flute Solo (3:11)
  • Record (3:09)
  • Autumn (0:23)
  • Births/The Peking Theme (1:30)
  • Pregnancy/Yan´er´s Punishment (0:41)
  • Meishan Sings (3:21)
  • Young Master Returns/Meishan´s Punishment (0:56)
  • Realization (1:04)
  • Winter (0:44)
  • Ghost (1:05)
  • Seasons (0:11)
  • Next Summer (2:44)
  • House of Death (0:23)
  • Fifth Mistress (1:02)
  • Songlian´s Madness/End Credits (3:12)

Running Time: 30 minutes 41 seconds

Milan Records 3560 (1991)

Music composed and conducted by Zhao Jiping. Recorded and mixed by Jiro Ishii. Score produced by Zhao Jiping. Album produced by Ian Hierons.

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