Red Lanterns Raised, Singers Hung, Ghosts Rampant


“Hang High the Red Lanterns”. 1991. Zhang Yimou, dir. We all have seen the film, a few the 2003 ballet, probably fewer still worked our way through the original (Chinese-langage) novella by 苏童 妻妾成群 “Wife and Concubines in Contest” (my perverse translation), though surely many more the English translation.

It is one of those “how seriously should I take this?” midcareer Zhang Yimou productions. Dominated (as later would be Turandot and First Emperor on the boards, and the eponymous ballet of 2003) by that director’s ingenuity, even obsession, with prop design (wutai meishu, Bühnenbild): lighting and perspective and proto-architecture. Still more with color: color-clocking, rather (there are rarely any spaces for color transition, shading: hues are en bloc):

red (lampflame fire- or blood-red yellow fringe/aura of candlelight)
black (imprisoning shadow, facelessness of Chen Zuoqian)
white (dispassionate cold, conspiracy, plots emerging in the open, culminating in death’s pallor)

And with archaic technologies: distillation, dyeing, guttered tile architexture, etc.

But is it (this) anything more than a high-glitz, fine-lense murder-mystery with a soupcon of the supernatural? Close kin to (pilot for?) Shanghai Triad: the sets become the actors-in-chief. Apparent, but only that, empathy for fallen women, their maltreatment, their often suicidal life-ends? An advancement in Gen5 film ideation? or a sleight of hand designed to make the already in decline nouvelle vague of the ’78-ers accessible to the new TV-raised urban young? (There was, indeed, a Taiwan scripted 1992 TV series 大红灯笼高高挂, 共46集全 46 episodes, dir. 蒲腾晋, already being broadcast but a year after the film’s release). Merchant-Ivory Gothic with a Taiwanese face?

Some might so think” this writer not. It is not nearly as easy a target of analysis (judgement) as one might first adjudge, probably because the backscript’s author, Su Tong, is a author with many faces, and a well-educated one into the bargain- no Hollywood lightweight, and I would guess more actively involved in the filmscript than is generally credited. ( (The 1991 film titles credit Joe Ni, a Hongkong based TV serialist with the transfer from novel to film…, but that I think is a tacked on credit to ease acceptance in Hong Kong). Elisions are many, but additions or overwrites none.
Nobody would call Su Tong a “mass-audience” writer. And, surtout, it is not easily placed within either Chinese or global genre vocabularies.

The easy way out was and still is to call it a chuanqi (supernatural) tale. But there is to one degree or another Anglo-Gothic (and even? Edgar Allan Poe) influence, which calls into play the issue of the “house” (both senses) as a troubled setting, bedeviled by the constrictions of the past (DNA included) upon its ability procreate into the future. A possibly Scandinavians’ fascination with madness lurks somewhere. (Much, “Shriek”)

And to a degree the “backstage-musical” (-drama) trope, a play within a play: the narrator discusses the inside, the before-and-after, the lead actor(s) face outward, interested in what the “paying” audience sees at stage-front, not behind the curtain, while the external (film-watching) audience sees both. (Meishan’s monologue, below, offers an explicit insight: the players perform mainly for playgoers, but in between also for themselves; or even ultimately for those who aren’t there, are invisible (ghosts is the code). A kind of triangulation

So, as already stated, it is a difficult work (qua film) to place. Is it worth the effort of a deep dig?

The “serious or frivolous” dilemma is upon us very soon into the film. The paper lanterns and the ritual of their lighting, elevation, lowering and extinction.

It seemed at first run-through just another trope for ordering or disciplining the bevy of “wives and concubines” and their attendants. So naturally I had assumed it (the pulleys and the lanterns to which it seemed to refer) were just another of those semi-prankish gadgetries that Zhang has often fancied for their appeal as devices inherited from the age of pre-machinery. Of which the best known of course is the distillation complex in Red Sorghum, halfway between magic and machine, but actually neither: just derivative fantasy, a trompe l’oeil extension of one or another social rite, a quip. An expansion of something described in the novella.

Until at the retirement conference for Prof Fred Wakeman at UCB in 2006 I overheard him mention that the backstory’s author, Su Tong, had been (well the word used was) dumbfounded by all this supposedly archaic system of signalling – is it times of day? more important, of to which Mistress the Master would repair for physical gratification. Nothing of that sort appears ANYWHERE in the novella. Nor indeed in any other story of the genre here in play: the modern ghost or horror tale, chuanqi. So what is this enactment doing here? Why has it been not just added but placed at the center of the filmstory?


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