Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou) is the leader of China’s rebel Fifth Generation directors. His films, set in China’s feudal past, are bravely subversive in revealing how old attitudes don’t always die with the systems that fostered them. Though Zhang wins acclaim in the West, many at home resent his China-bashing. The government tried (futilely) to withdraw Ju Dou from Oscar consideration and refused to release the film in China.
Raise the Red Lantern, a magnificent film that confirms Zhang as a world-class director, may cause him more grief. The setting is northern China in the Twenties. The teenage Songlian (Gong Li) marries the fiftyish Chen (Ma Jingwu), a rich and ruthless man who already has three wives. Each night, servants raise a red lantern in front of the door of the wife whom the master decides to reward with his sexual favors. The struggle among the wives for power, or at least the appearance of it, allows Zhang to suggest disturbing links between past and present. Gong Li delivers a performance of exquisite expressiveness that, like the film itself, is unnerving in its emotional nakedness.