Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai and Zhang Yimou’s Raise The Red Lantern both have similar outlooks on the patriarchal society in China which is built on carrying forward pre-existing customs and rules defined and lorded over by men. While Hou Hsia-Hsien’s movie is set in 1884, Zhang Yimou sets his film in the early 20th century but in terms of what they are commenting upon, there is very little that they differ on. These aren’t reviews but an attempt to understand the themes that the two films delved upon and the craft they employed to tell their tales.
In Flowers Of Shanghai(FoS), we see the life of flower girls in Shanghai through their interactions with gentlemen, who appear to be high ranking government officials. There are four flower houses (brothels) and in each we have the women – Crimson (Michiko Hada) in the Huifang Enclave, Pearl (Carina Lau) and Jade (Shuan Fang) in Gongyang Enclave, Emerald(Michelle Reis) in the Shangren Enclave and Jasmin (Vicky Wei) in the East Hexing Enclave whose lives are taken care of by women who are called as Aunties and are at the call of gentlemen. In Raise The Red Lantern (RTRL), we follow Songlian (Gong Li) who enters a rich man’s household as his fourth wife. And here we see her interact with the other three wives – the envy she generates in the other three wives, the increasingly frustrating customs and control games one has to play for the master’s attention.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien opens FoS with a fantastic eight minute sequence going around a banquet table at one of the brothels capturing a conversation that reduces lovers gaze to mental telepathy and introduces us to the concept of ownership of these flower girls,their dependence on callers for business. Towards the end of the sequence we learn of the deep seated importance of holding on to callers and the jealousy that exists between these girls. If one of the women gets more gifts or gets hold of a caller who has been a regular elsewhere, she has every chance of being beaten up as we learn from Crimson’s attitude towards Jasmin. These callers are the women’s way out of the flower girl life. It is a life filled with gifts and self-loathing pain. The men provide the girls with ornamental pleasures and clear their family debts, almost living a semi-monogamous relationship with the women. In time, some even get married or help them attain “freedom” from their flower girl status by providing the aunties with enough money to let them off from their slavery. This freedom is only an extension of their slavery but instead of responding to 50 different callers or being beaten up by the aunties for every mistake they make; they are now under the control of one man, the man who has paid for their freedom. In reality, they never escape slavery but only manage to swap their masters in the hope of getting a life with a little more respectability and one infinitely less painful.
In RTRL we see a different form of slavery, one where a woman is a wife and yet her life is one of servitude, almost the life of a flower girl after she has exchanged vows of marriage. Songlian enters the house as the Fourth Mistress, still in her school dress. The oldest mistress is as old as the master, the second has the face of a Buddha and the third is an accomplished opera singer. All four women live in their respective corners of a house which seems endlessly huge. We see the house end vertically with a room where women in the past have hanged themselves but horizontally it is endless, confining our view to one akin to a prison with grey walls and grey tiled roofs. The woman whom the master visits gets to have her house lit with red lanterns and her feet massaged. She also gets to choose the menu for the next day. For these three pleasures, the women play power politics – hinting to the master any flaws of the other wives, calling in sick in the middle of the night to disrupt any possibility of love between the master and the mistress he spends the night with. While these women are married, they have little gifts, the aforementioned pleasures alongside some ornamental gifts too, given by the master in exchange for sexual pleasure. Otherwise, they do not have a say in his life. If the woman gives birth to a female child, she is only relegated further in the household and the hierarchy of the master’s visits. Youthfulness and beauty are paramount to the master and something equally paramount is to beget an heir. To conceive means the woman has the master’s attention, the red lanterns, the foot massages and in short, the household at her beck and call. It isn’t far off from what we have observed here in India. Pregnant women are treated with great comfort until they birth the child. If it turns out to be a male offspring, she is treated like a queen and the child completes the family. If it is a female offspring, chances are the child is only the mother’s responsibility or treated with disdain and the mother is a bearer of curses than the queen she hoped to be.
Both FoS and RTRL explore a form of bondage which is lorded over by men. In FoS, the hierarchy of power is the caller, the aunty who runs the flower house, the mistress and then her maids. The maids are either girls who failed to become flower girls due to a lack of skill or ones who aren’t beautiful enough. These are women who are purchased as kids and are brought up in the hope they bring in rich callers when they grow older. The maids are forever caught in servitude whereas the mistresses wish to find the kind of slavery which Zhang Yimou explores in depth in RTRL. Incidentally, Hou Hsiao-Hsien was one of the producers of Zhang Yimou’s RTRL which came out in 1991. One could say that FoS is a prequel in both time period and also in the women’s life. In FoS, Jade falls in love with one of her callers. They both take a vow to either live together or die together. She wants to be his wife. The other members of her house consider this an ambition above her station. They believe that at best she could be a second wife of a gentleman caller.
In RTRL, a maid favoured by the master acts hostile towards Songlian because her expectations of becoming a mistress have been dashed. She lights her room with red lanterns every night and imagines she is the one receiving foot massages. She aspires for the status that these red lanterns give her. She wants what Jade in FoS wanted but her life is nothing more than one of a maid in the Shanghai brothels. It is only the location which has changed but otherwise the maids and the mistresses enjoy the same status in both. The mistresses demand what they desire if the master visits them but are otherwise lorded over by the aunty in FoS, by the mistress with the red lanterns in RTRL who behaves like a punishing aunty and then the caller/master.
Patriarchy is overtly observable in FoS and RTRL. Mencius said that a woman was to be subordinate to her father in youth, her husband in maturity, and her son in old age. In FoS and RTRL, we see the second stage of subordination. While in the former, it is the gentlemen callers who lord over the women and in RTRL it is the husband who governs the household. RTRL also addresses the first stage in the very first scene. Songlian is forced to marry a rich man by her step mother once her father dies. A university student, her education is disrupted and she becomes the fourth wife of a man, sent far away from the place she once knew. Songlian’s attachment to her father is brought up by Yimou using a flute she keeps looking at which once belonged to her father. In one instance, envious, her husband orders that the flute be burnt. It is the indication of the burning of a state of subordination and taking over of what belongs to him.
In FoS, when disputes arise among gentlemen callers and flower girls, it is arbitrated by the oldest of gentlemen callers in the circle. Master Hong heads every banquet table, plays matchmaker to the flower girls, and serves as negotiator to appease both flower girls and their callers. Master Hong is a shrewd peacemaker who satisfies the demands of the flower girls and ensures that apart from monetary loss, the gentlemen don’t suffer any other losses. In both instances, Wang negotiating with Crimson after he takes up with Jasmin and Shuren’s spat with Jade after he refuses to marry her, the gentlemen pay up whatever is decreed at the expense of Wang no longer being exclusive to Crimson and Shuren saving his family honor and his life as well. Emerald initially rejects Master Luo’s offer to free her from the life of a flower girl but ultimately when she has to leave, half the money due the aunty to release her is paid by him. He gets to maintain face within the elite club he frequents. For the women, once exclusive, taking up lovers means a discontinuance of callers. When Crimson takes up a lover, Wang breaks things at Crimson’s room and refuses to see her, pushing her to contemplate suicide. The only surprise in FoS is the characterisation of Pearl, who seems to be the only one who has a semblance of control, an extravagance in this society permitted by Hong. She has been around long enough to arbitrate internal divisions within her house, taking care of the jealous snipes between Treasure and Jade but when it comes to matter that involve negotiating with gentlemen and matchmaking, she takes the backstage.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien views China as an incredibly rigid society where the older the men, the wiser they are considered and hence automatically more respected. With a few foreign currencies thrown around, men are capable of getting everything they desire. Unlike RTRL which is more representative of a political system, FoS is representative of a corrupt panchayati judicial enterprise. Justice is never served but lorded over by men creating an impression of justice which is both nauseating and claustrophobic, sold to the highest bidder. The flower houses are market places that also parade as what one could relate to yesteryear village panchayats in Indian movies settled by the richest of men(the zamindari), presumably also the wisest and mostly also the oldest.
RTRL is representative of a patriarchal government. The women are the subjects, the housekeeper and attendants the officials of a government running around to do the bidding of the master, head of the state. The lighting of red lanterns greeting the arrival of the master along the pathway and the house of the mistress he visits is similar to the decorations that galore every premier’s arrival in a city. The power struggle between the four wives reminds one of different regions in a country fighting over the budget, for additional powers from the premier of the country. China, which is built on the Confucius principle of well-run families building well-run states is held in front of a mirror for observance in Zhang Yimou’s RTRL. The customs that are followed in the household are the rules that govern a society.
The wives are expected to stay faithful to the husband, naturally and more importantly, they aren’t allowed to venture out of the family compound. Their existence is through the long stretched of the compound, a prison like building. When the third wife commits both the sins when she has an affair with a doctor in a hotel in the village, she is taken to the room where women who’ve sinned in the past generations are killed and beaten to death by the master’s people. When the room is first shown, we learn about their usage. The men of the family have never been subjected to such treatment. I wonder, had Songlian had an affair with the oldest son in the family, a theme Yimou would explore in Curse Of The Golden Flower, would the oldest son have succumbed to the same fate. Songlian would have, undoubtedly. Here,when the master sleeps with Songlian’s maid Yan’er, there is no apology or acceptance that it is a sin. Adultery is a sin here only when the women commit it. Songlian is punished, never to be visited by her husband and thereby the powers of a favoured wife when she lies about her pregnancy. By lying to her master, she has subverted authority and that demands the greatest of punishments, which in the eyes of the master is to starve her of the only things which could be considered pleasurable inside the compound. There is an attempt at coercion when the Fourth Wife calls her husband a murderer; coercion of an act so cruel she even turns insane. Her insanity in the end feels like a respite from all the pain she has felt since her father has died. Even here, one can see the parable with a modern day government which punishes for breaking the law and coerces through force if you have any secrets to spill. Insanity might just be our saving grace in a world where we are prisoned from experiencing the pleasures of the world.
The place where FoS and RTRL differ the most is in two aspects – the conversations and the cinematography and, it is these two aspects that truly set apart the two films. Both come with incredible craft and beauty but the way the conversation plays and the way the whole thing is shot makes the experience of watching the two films vividly different. One stand-out feature that deserves mention in that both films dealing with sexual slavery manage to convey the pitiful status of these women entirely through dialogue and the actors’ skill without having to resort to actually showing us any sex.
FoS is shot mostly using medium shots, the height of the camera also mostly at mid-size. The rooms in the flower houses give a predominantly red and golden yellow colour to the film. Hou Hsiao-Hsien overloads our senses with this reddish yellow colour scheme with matching robes, lighting fire lamps to bring light in the dark rooms with dark wooden furniture so that when the camera moves from a person to another person as he follows the individuals in a conversation, a claustrophobic effect sets in. The claustrophobia experienced by the flowers girls becomes ours and the experience, which though intentional makes for a little disturbing viewing. Flowers Of Shanghai is one of the few movies where I found the usage of a typical Ozu shot. When Wang is in Crimson’s room smoking opium and lying around on the couch, we see the Ozu shot being used prominently.
RTRL comprises of the usual stock of Yimou’s long shots to create the atmosphere, medium shots for conversation and rituals and a few close ups. The close ups come when we are to see Gong Li’s beautiful face depict sadness and pithy at her self. The most fascinating aspect here is that the master’s face is visible closely only once in the entire film which is otherwise always either framed in long shots or hidden by curtains when the medium shots linger, signifying that every male head of the family in China during the period was a patriarch and this could be any man’s household. The visuals are a thing of beauty, prominently red,grey and blue, pulling us into this extremely sad tale.
Both films are not the respective masters’ greatest films but they both show an intelligence and film-making that only the great film-makers possess. They have placed a mirror at a society from a different era and critiqued it subtly with varying degrees of success. In my eyes, both films are great advertisements for the skill of the Taiwanese New Wave Movement and The Fifth generation film-makers from Chinese mainland.
- Mencius and Masculinities
- A detailed analysis of the Confucianism in Zhang Yimou’s Raise The Red Lantern
- Ozu Shot