In 1984, Yellow Earth was the first film from the so-called ‘Fifth Generation’ of new Chinese filmmakers who had emerged as the first new graduates of the Beijing Film Academy in the early 1980s to be seen widely outside China. The visual power of the film came from the partnership between Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou and over the next few years these two would emerge as the major figures of Chinese Cinema for the international audience. The Chinese film industry had been nationalised early in the 1950s and it operated several studios in different parts of the country. Significantly, the most interesting films from the new directors tended to come from the studios in the remote territories, far from the censors in Beijing or indeed the establishment figures in the industry. Over the next few years, the Chinese government censors allowed some films to be released, but held others back – not always with a clear rationale for their decisions. Filmmakers became accustomed to ‘playing games’ with the censors and developing deals with overseas production partners. Zhang Yimou has been particularly adept at these games and as a result has made more films than many of his contemporaries (e.g. Tian Zhuangzhuang with ten years between each of his three major films).
Zhang Yimou’s first directorial effort was Red Sorghum (1987). This was a popular film, based on a popular novel, with popular songs and the first of an unofficial trilogy of films, all of which were allowed for export and became arthouse hits across the world. Judou followed in 1989 and Raise the Red Lantern in 1991. These three films have the following common features:
• all are ‘historical’, or at least set in the period before the founding of the PRC (People’s Republic of China);
• all feature Gong Li as a beautiful and intelligent young woman forced to rebel against an older man or patriarchal system;
• all are melodramas, notable for an ‘excessive’ visual style, characterised most often by the use of the colour red. Red Sorghum is set amongst the fields of red grain which produce a local beer/wine – and which literally run with blood during the violent conclusion to the story. Judou is set in a dyeworks.
The setting of Raise the Red Lantern is the 1920s and Gong Li plays a young woman who through force of circumstance must become the fourth wife/concubine of a rich man. She finds herself battling with the other three wives to build and protect her own position in the very traditional household.
The production history of the film shows an early co- production with the celebrated Taiwanese director Hou Hsaio-Hsien as executive producer and a Hong Kong production company able to ease the passage of the film into Western arthouse distribution. The film was shot in China in Shanxi province but its release was suppressed by the Chinese authorities. It is certainly possible to see the story as a metaphor for the repression in the Communist state which led to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Verina Glaessner in her Sight and Sound review (February 1992) suggests that the characters in the film have their own individual lives subsumed in the unchanging life of the house. The colour red here denotes not passion but simply status and the Old Master with his preference for things to be ‘bright and formal’ appears to be referring to the Chinese socialist realist view of art (as distinct from the much more sophisticated visual sense of the Fifth Generation). The metaphor forces Zhang into a much more austere and controlled representation of the house than in the more clearly melodramatic mise en scene of the brewery in Red Sorghum or the dyeworks in Judou.
By his third film (in the West) Zhang Yimou had attracted both admiring audiences and a range of academic critics, notably those concerned with feminist film studies and ‘post colonial’ studies. He became identified with films that seemed to celebrate the suffering of Chinese women. His attachment to his ‘muse’, Gong Li also brought up charges of appearing to satisfy an ‘Orientalist’ desire to see images of a beautiful China with its beautiful heroine. A good example of the critiques is offered in this Bright Lights article, ‘Better Beauty Through Technology: Chinese Transnational Feminism and the Cinema of Suffering’:
. . . in Chinese film – particularly in the Fifth Generation Mainland films, which apparently ignore bourgeois Western feminism – the ideological tensions between Eastern and Western feminism have often been trumped by visual splendor and depictions of melodramatic female suffering. While representations of feudal suffering were a common tool used by Republican revolutionaries and anti-Confucian Maoists alike to critique Third World primitivism, the persistence of this aesthetic has in film submerged any kind of gendered politics beneath a commodifiable aesthetic of cinematographic prettiness, in which the systems under critique are paradoxically presented romantically, nostalgically, in a word, sexily. Of course, generic images of female suffering are common throughout classical East Asian cinema, as evidenced by Mizoguchi’s ever-suffering heroines, whose proto-feminisms the Japanese new wave, attempting to escape the straitjacket of feudalist aesthetics, considered needlessly romantic. But while I refuse to characterize suffering as an aesthetic particularly “Asian” or feminine, I must still contend with the kind of oriental imagery promulgated by Zhang Yimou, which has fostered an internationally recognized trope of prettified female suffering, and which – ignoring both Western feminism and Chinese Mulan-ism [Mulan is a traditional Chinese heroine figure] – has been incapable of saying anything innovative about women’s problems in premodern China. If feminism should critique the tyranny of the physical appearances that preserve male and female as biologically exclusive and unequal terms, might it not be ironic for a film – such as Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern – to purportedly critique patriarchy while burying its themes beneath the similarly exclusive physical appearances of high-class cinematography? (Andrew Grossman, 2002, Bright Lights 35 on http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/35/chinesefeminism1.html)
A different view comes from Mary Farquhar writing on another Australian website, Senses of Cinema:
The trilogy is probably Zhang’s masterpiece. Its visual power rests on female sexuality as onscreen spectacle. Its narrative power rests on reworking the early 20th century debate on Chinese patriarchy, liberation and modernity. Lu Xun, China’s best-known writer in the early 20th century, was a trenchant critic of Confucianism, especially filial piety. He called on fathers to liberate the young and so liberate society. Without such systemic change, he wrote, children are socialised into a cannibalistic society in which everyone is gobbled up. Within this framework, young women who challenge the system in socialist realist Chinese cinema of the 1930s nearly always die. The Chinese Communist Party subsequently claimed that they had liberated the masses from Confucian and capitalist bondage: men, women and children. Fifth Generation cinema, however, recast the Party as political patriarchy in a devastating cultural critique. Zhang goes even further in the trilogy. Old men personify a system that never relinquishes power. Freedom only comes from real or symbolic patricide that is carried out by the son but instigated by female desire. Women have agency. Their ability to choose a man is the catalyst for social change, for better among peasants in Red Sorghum or for worse in the artisan and literati households of, respectively, Judou and Raise the Red Lantern. Thus, many commentators call the trilogy a Chinese exploration of oedipality, founded on ancestral controls over female desire rather than on the son’s actual desire for his blood mother. The argument is no longer that fathers must liberate their children but that children must kill their fathers to liberate themselves.