The 20th Century was characterized by vast social developments around the world. Cultural values and heritage that had been blocking social growth in various regions were forcefully eroded. However, China and other countries in Southern Asian region did not undergo major forms of cultural disintegration unlike in the West. Therefore, some cultural attachments hinder social growth and development in the region even to date. Women are the most affected in society as traditional cultural values have denied them equal right as men (Goodman 89). On the other hand, Western countries did not have a problem in abandoning their native cultures to pave the way for democracy and social developments.
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In the 1960s, feminism and civil rights activism brought about a dramatic change in cultural values in western countries. Women were granted equal rights as men. Hence, the 20th Century will be regarded as the era of social development. However, China has a long history of cultural values since the Confucian era. This attachment to traditional values had adverse effects on the women’s status in the 20th Century. However, the Communist government banned some values after ascending to power in the 1950s. This paper uses the movies, Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qiu Ju, to explore the changing status of women in 20th-Century China.
Zhang Yimou is an internationally renowned director of Chinese films. He is known for his ability to use resilience as a major character in his films. This aspect helps in depicting the Chinese’s endurance in hardship and adversity. Additionally, his films are notable for the rich use of colors and symbols. His skills are evident in his movies, Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qiu Ju.
Raise the Red Lantern is one of the most successful Zhang Yimou’s films for its elegant stage style, perfect lighting, color, and beautiful themes. Many reviewers find it outstanding for having beautiful scenes that are perfectly framed and composed. In an interview, Yimou said that his purpose was to produce a film whose single frame would be worth hanging in a picture gallery. Besides, he holds that every image should tell a relevant story to the theme. Reviewers also note Yimou’s perfect way of expressing mood by using colors. Every scene has background colors that complement the characters’ moods.
The movie setting is in a household hence impossible to have wide a geographical cover for the background views. Yimou had to perfect in matching colors, costumes, designs, and lightings with the theme. Interestingly, he perfectly used season characteristics, which include heat, rain, and snow to impress character and complement moods with the ongoing events (Lin 82).
Besides, Yimou adds that he loves experimenting different cinematography methods. This assertion explains why he uses unique cinematography styles in Raise the Red Lantern movie by making it a great art masterpiece. The narrative structure depicts the events of the 1920s where women were oppressed by cultural values that favored men. The storyline depicts triumphs of a nineteen-year-old woman, Songlian, who drops out of University after the death of her father. Without much resistance power, her stepmother forces her to get married. However, on her terms, she marries the rich master of Chen household as the fourth wife. Culturally, a Chinese man marries one wife, and the rest are termed as concubines in a polygamous family.
In the household, Songlian is given a maidservant called Yang. Yang’s work is to serve Songlian as well as helping her familiarize with the “ancient customs and rituals of the Chen household” (Megahey par. 6). The master chooses one amongst the four wives for the night. The chosen wife is granted the favor of experiencing pleasure from the master’s fortune whereby she gets the honor of having a foot massage and red lanterns lit in her quarter (Hinsch 42).
However, there is a stiff competition amongst the three wives as Songlian realizes soon after meeting them. Her arrival to the household stiffens the competition whereby the others see her as the youngest and the most beautiful. Thus, they fear that the master would give her most attention. Therefore, she could deprive them the pleasure they enjoyed before her arrival. Notably, the third mistress is the most competitive of all since she sees Songlian as her replacement. She had enjoyed the favors of being the youngest and most beautiful among the three and now fears being deprived of that joy. Besides, she is a renowned opera singer and thus she cannot let that go easily.
In addition to being “perfectly composed and photographed, the film is more about ancient customs, rituals, and outdated norms such as polygamy” (Megahey par. 4). That way of life no longer makes sense in the 21st Century. Women do not have the rights that their male counterparts enjoy in the film, which was the case in early 20th Century. This aspect explains why Songlian dropped out of university and forced into a prearranged married. She marries a polygamous man where she has to compete with other wives for her husband’s attention. Yimou uses the plight of women, as a major theme is a storyline, which depicts the life situation and events in China in the 20th Century.
Regardless of its political dimension, the movie has rich information about the roles of men and women in China. Hence, the director achieves his objective by using unique cinematography skills. Songlian is a powerful woman, and she gets into power battles with the master when she realizes that other women are not any better. Besides, she fights to control her maidservant thus causing emotional charge in the household. Stunning lighting and color complement these events to illustrate emotional themes.
The movie has a great presentation style that has enabled it to rise to high levels of acknowledgment in the industry. Gong Li, who plays the character, Songlian, is a world-renowned best Chinese actress as evidenced by numerous nominations, awards, and recognitions that she has received. She delivers a great performance in character. At the opening scene, “she acts with an incredible precision where she expresses her feelings to the stepmother” (Megahey par. 8).
Nevertheless, she looks directly at the camera showing her prowess in acting. In the act, she looks oppressed and desperate with tears rolling down her face (Raise the Red Lantern). She expresses uncertainty in the direction, which her life seems to have taken. Moreover, tone variations and body languages underscore her agony in the scene. Although she agrees to the wishes of her stepmother, the audience can see her determination not to be defeated by her body language.
The film has great video and audio characteristics. Video characteristics comprise photography, lighting, color, and the ability to convey mood and meaning. Although there are minor issues such as the slight amount of grains in print and flicker in brightness, the movie has great tones, lighting, and coloring characteristics. Lighting variations are well utilized to depict variation in the moods hence producing a great movie. On the other hand, the audio track retains the original mix and clarity of Chinese musical instruments. At loud volumes, the audio track is clear and no hiss and crackle like the case with many movies produced in the same period. Most importantly, the audio volume is well adjusted to fit in the different scenes coupled with expressing both the meaning and the mood in the film.
On the other hand, The Story of Qiu Ju is a movie about a woman who goes against the odds to get justice. The movie was released in 1993, and it has different cinematography style from that used in the Raise the Red Lantern. As mentioned earlier, Yimou loves experimenting new cinematography styles. Therefore, he could hardly have used the same cinematography styles in the two movies. Raise the Red Lantern is shot in a household environment whereas The Story of Qiu Ju is filmed in various environments according to the plot.
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As in the previous movie, Gong Li plays the main protagonist, Qui Ju. However, the reviewers did not give much credit to this movie even though it is a great masterpiece. The narrative structure of this movie has a wider coverage unlike in the previous one. The story begins with Gong Li appearing as a tired woman in last trimester of her pregnancy. Her husband is badly hit in the groin area by the area chief and he does not push for his justice. Offended, Gong Li stands against the area chief and reports the matter to the police official who asks the chief to pay for both the medical bill and salary for the husband.
The arrogant chief throws the reparations at her. She refuses to pick the fallen money and turns away determined to get justice. This time, she does not settle for anything less despite her pregnancy. Her husband is infuriated by her determination to seek justice, and she eventually goes to the city. The members of community talk about her and the husband becomes more infuriated for the shame that has engulfed his family.
In the city, Qui Ju is shocked with the culture of people living there. She expresses her shock after realizing that people take each other to court unlike in the rural area, and she wonders how good people can sue each other (The Story of Qiu Ju). However, she does not get what she wants as the judge rules that the settlement made by the district officer is good for the case. She does not feel frustrated since she learns a lot and is proud of fighting for justice.
Qui Ju goes into labor where the chief and other people ferry her to the labor ward. She delivers a healthy baby boy. Finally, the chief is arrested for the contempt of court, but she pleads with police officers who refuse to release him. Interestingly, Qui Ju fights for the justice of her husband due to the possibility that he might not sire a child in the future. Hence, the movie highlights the outcry that the Chinese women had against the government’s policy to limit the number of children that one can have (Zhen 89).
Women have played a major role in the development of democracy in China since the early 20th Century. The government has been controlling the Chinese population using different strategies, which culminated in the one-child policy. Women felt oppressed since they did not enjoy the right to have many children as their counterparts in other countries. In the movie, there is a scene where a young couple goes to the police station to get a marriage permit. They are asked questions about how they met and why they fell in love. This aspect depicts the real situation in China, which explains why the Chinese are angry at their government’s power and interference with their personal lives. However, women are the most affected by these laws (Karl, Liu, and Ko 152).
The two movies have the same presentation styles, and they share the same great actor playing the main protagonist. However, The Story of Qiu Ju has various cinematic backgrounds, and the director tries to show the different lifestyles between rural and urban livelihoods. The rural setting has dull background due to vegetation. On the other hand, the urban setting has a clear background to show the difference in livelihood. People in the rural areas are considered lower as compared to those in the urban area.
The clarity in the background is culminated by differences in colors and lightings. Just like is the case in the Raise the Red Lantern, the movie has clear audio music in the background to complement mood and theme. The director uses volume variations to emphasize the mood variations and convey the meaning. However, the two movies are great artworks, and they have brought fame to Zhang Yimou as one of the greatest movie directors of the Chinese films.
Goodman, David. In The New Rich in China: Future Rulers, Present Lives, New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Hinsch, Bret. Masculinities in Chinese History, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013. Print.
Karl, Rebecca, Lydia Liu, and Dorothy Ko. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Print.
Lin, Chun. The Transformation of Chinese Socialism, Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. Print.
Megahey, Noel. Raise the Red Lantern 2006. Web.
Raise the Red Lantern. Dir. Yimou Zhang. Beijing: China Film Co-Production Corporation. 1992. Film.
The Story of Qiu Ju. Dir. Yimou Zhang. Hong Kong: Sil-Metropole Organization. 1993. Film.
Zhen, Zhang. The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the 21st Century, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.