March 25, 2014

Coming home to the red lanterns of Zhang Yimou and Gong Li: A conversation with Teju Cole


unnamed (4)Yan Geling‘s The Criminal Lu Yanshi, a novel about an intellectual in exile who gets sent to a labor camp upon his return home, was published in 2011. Though it has yet to be translated into English, we’ll be able to experience the book in film form at the end of the year: Coming Home, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li, Zhang’s muse from the 1990s and Chinese cinema’s canniest, most glamorous face.

But when I watched the trailer, which was released last week—and, happily, featuring a makeup-free, teary Gong—I began to look forward not to this film but to their collaboration from 1991, the Oscar-nominated Raise the Red Lantern, based on Su Tong‘s story of the same name. (The original title in Chinese is Wives and Concubines.)

The novella, translated with keenness by Michael S. Duke in 1993, is about the power struggles among wives, between masters and servants, between fickle men and their caged mistresses. The newest concubine is Lotus, who, following the death of her father, cut short her education in order to marry a rich man and avoid having to work. Like the other three wives, she is practical, resourceful, petty, and proud, but because she is the newest member, she still has much to learn about the rules of the household, and so feels entitled to break them.

As written by Su, this is the ultimate domestic nightmare. As filmed by Zhang, it is a slow burn of a horror story, at times calling to mind The Turn of the Screw or The Yellow Wallpaper. It is here where Gong Li’s beauty and bitter haughtiness shine brightest; it is here where Zhang Yimou’s artistry has the most devastating effect. He frames most shots with an almost painfully complete symmetry, in order to remind us of the numbing ritual humiliations experienced by all the women. As they wait for the red lantern to appear at their door—the sign that the master has chosen to spend the night there—their hierarchy is put on display. When the various lanterns are lit inside the lucky concubine’s compound, the camera pulls far back for an aerial shot of interlaced roofs; down center is the open court. If you pull the camera back even farther, you can become lost, like Kafka’s imperial messenger, in this maze of rigid order.

The last time Zhang and Gong collaborated was for 2006’s historical epic Curse of the Golden Flower. I’m a great believer in their collaborations, but just as book jackets with cherry blossoms and fluttering fans tend to confound me, so do films with titles using words like cursegolden, and flower. So news of Coming Home, and of Zhang and Gong working together again after eight years (before that, it was eleven years, from 1995’s Shanghai Triad), was welcome. There was some wariness in the welcome, however, because of Zhang’s dismaying slide into state-sanctioned messages, starting with 2002’s Hero. (Though, okay, his treatment of the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics was pretty neat.) But because Coming Home was written by Yan, known for her turbulent epics set in the more recent past, the best-known among them Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (Joan Chen‘s directorial debut), we might hope for more layered portraits from Zhang. And with Gong’s formidable vulnerability and expressiveness, we’re in for a memorable reunion between director and muse.

But the last word will always remain with Raise the Red Lantern.

So I watched the film again. Teju Cole, whose novel Every Day Is for the Thief was released today, joined me in watching, and afterward, we chatted about the impact of the lanterns, and of Gong Li, in our eyes.

Teju Cole: I’m glad you suggested we watch Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern — the fifth or sixth viewing for both of us, but for both the first time in many years. What suddenly brought the film back to mind for you?

Wah-Ming Chang: The trailer for Zhang’s new film, Coming Home, was just released, and there was Gong Li in all her gorgeous glory. The scenes had her in gestures of tears, regret, relief, hope — reminding me of Meryl Streep‘s brilliance. But because I didn’t want to think of Meryl Streep while thinking of Gong Li, and because I love — truly love — only one film that Zhang and Gong collaborated on, I had to go back to Raise the Red Lantern.

I’d forgotten (though it’s possible I’d never recognized, until this watching) how stark and contained the movie is — aurally, visually, setting-wise. What was your impression this time around?

TC: The symmetries jumped out at me. Those nested courtyards and capacious rooms, so severe and formal, were made even more so by the calm, symmetrical framing. And this was the perfect backdrop for the furious sequence of emotional collisions at the film’s core. Symmetry can be deadening. Not in this case.

WMC: The mood built itself up like a horror film from first frame to last. Before this viewing, I thought of the film only as a collaboration between Zhang and Gong, an opportunity for them to showcase a particular focus in their talents — pacing and color from Zhang; pride, restraint, and naiveté from Gong. This time, the stifling formal symmetry was so prominent. In contrast to Coming Home, which is about a specific oppressive period in China’s history, Raise the Red Lantern looks like an exercise in paranoia, which requires restraint from both filmmaker and actor. A horror story. A ghost story. The Innocents, the 1961 film version of Henry James‘s The Turn of the Screw starring Deborah Kerr, is a similar exercise — partly because of the formalism of a period story, partly because it also stars a patriarchal figure we never see.

And now that I think of it, the symmetry in The Shining is a perfect complement. But am I seeing too much? What did you see?

TC: Gong’s face. I first watched Raise the Red Lantern in 1993, and I fell helplessly in love with this face. It was my version of the distant inaccessible 1940s glamour icon. I mean, talk about symmetry. For about ten years, I only had time for her, Irène Jacob, and Juliette Binoche. It was kind of worrisome to think that such faces existed out there in the world. Now, on this viewing, I see the combination of lightness and tight control in Gong’s performance, the very high order of acting. The film belongs to her and to those strange floating red lanterns that are in every other scene. She is like a sun among all those red planets. Yes, it’s a horror film: but what a mercilessly beautiful horror film.

WMC: I wonder what it will be like for you to watch Irène Jacob and Juliette Binoche today as they had been then.

TC: Oh, believe me, I do. Those performances — I’m thinking of Krzysztof Kieślowski films in particular — are eternal.

You’ve read the Su Tong novella on which Raise the Red Lantern is based — I’ve only glanced at it, but it seems as if the film is a faithful adaptation with one major difference: those amazing lanterns are absent from the book. What do you think of that difference? For me the film is unimaginable without them, but writing is colorless, so I’d guess the book doesn’t lose too much in their absence.

WMC: In the book, the story is told in third person. The women have symbolic names (Lotus, Coral, Cloud, Joy) instead of the hierarchical honorifics used in the film (First Mistress, Second Mistress, &c.). The punishments in the book are harsher. Without the lanterns, ritual voyeurism (our own and the characters’) is removed. What’s left touches on sex — the power of it, how the power is gained, lost, transferred. Without the lanterns, the story is less like a fairy tale and more like something you hear from a straitjacketed patient. There seems to be a slight lesson in each section, but they’re subtle lessons, and for whom it is to learn these lessons I don’t know, because the build-up of dread, horror, an inevitable tragedy throughout the story can’t be seen through color, only through the shrewd yet naive eyes of Lotus (Fourth Mistress), who always seems to be just waking from a dream.

Yes, writing is colorless, which is why the book complements the film, and perhaps vice versa. I prefer taking in the abstraction of color, of Gong’s inaccessibility, than the march of words, but this is only a hair more so.

Zhang admits that he uses red in this film differently than in his others: as abstraction. What adds to the abstraction are the starkness of the other colors: gray (rooftop tiles), blue (dusk), and white (snow). Gong is like a sun, indeed, among the red planets — meanwhile, the sun and the planets are lost in icy, airless space. Zhang and Gong collaborated on several films in the 1990s that also use color to terrible, beautiful effect — but I remember these films less perfectly than I do Raise the Red Lantern. Was there another Zhang/Gong film that raised this color bar for you?

TC: None other this intensely, though I did like Ju Dou, and The Story of Qui Ju. I think the other film that I found coloristically hypnotic from that period, to the same extent as Raise the Red Lantern, was Chen Kaige‘s Farewell My Concubine. But I was so fond of Zhang Yimou’s films, the delicate domesticity of them, the steely Chekhovian perfection; and so, when Hero (2002) came out, with its fascist overtones, it was the end of something beautiful. I left the movie theater angry. Everyone I liked at that time was in the film: Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Jet Li, with Tan Dun on the sound track. It was a dream team in service of a crass message. What a waste.

But I want to see Coming Home. Perhaps Zhang’s circled round, again, to something gentler and truer. The trailer certainly makes it seem that way.

WMC: Zhang has circled around again to smaller-scale projects before: Not One Less and The Road Home feature fresh-faced actors (one of them a very young and innocent Zhang Ziyi). But with Gong Li back, and in such a vulnerable role, I’m looking forward to Coming Home too.

As for Hero: I’ve seen only ten minutes of it, somewhere toward the end. When it first came out, I couldn’t bring myself to see it in the theater because at the time it seemed like Zhang and every other Chinese director was cashing in on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s epic scale. (Which is why the clownishness in Stephen Chow‘s martial-arts movies can feel like a breath of fresh air.) I believe in the genre absolutely — it’s what I grew up on, so I feel fairly sentimental towards it — but am less than patient when most of them are too self-serious, -glorifying, or revisionist. What a waste indeed.

But I’m a little convinced now, from this conversation, that I should see it after all. For the color, nothing else.

TC: You should. And this talk of seeing things just for color makes me think maybe I should finally watch Zhang’s production of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.


Wah-Ming Chang was the managing editor of Melville House.