With Raise the Red Lantern, Chinese director Zhang Yimou has created one of the most beautiful Chinese films, presenting a bold and frightening parable in which women are ruled and governed in a hierarchical society of long-established customs. The film is set in 1920s China during the warlord era, years before the Chinese Civil War. Songlian is a nineteen year old college student whose father recently died leaving the family bankrupt, and her step mother is unwilling to support her. She is forced to drop out of college and ultimately comes to the decision to marry into the wealthy Chen family, becoming the Fourth Mistress of the household. The story takes place within the gray stone and tile walls of the Chen compound, where the Master lives in the central house and each of the four mistresses have a house of her own opening onto a central courtyard. They’re several rules and customs that each concubine must abide by, and every evening when The Master selects which mistress he will be spending the night with, a red lantern is placed outside her home.
The Master in Raise the Red Lantern is vaguely seen, his character is barely developed or fleshed out and he seems to be purposely made as merely a symbol. A symbol of patriarchal male dominance to govern his wives, less like a loving husband, and more like a property owner. Immediately when entering the compound Songlian is met with much hostility and tension as liaisons are quickly formed, one is not who they originally seem to be, and each mistress competes with one another over The Masters attention and affections. Chinese director Zhang Yimou who was born in 1951 and is a member of the ‘Fifth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers also began working after the Cultural Revolution dealing with Chinese society in a more open and artistic away than what was permitted at the height of Maoism. Unfortunately not all of the generation's films were approved by Chinese authorities, and Raise the Red Lantern was originally banned in China for a period of time. Raise the Red Lantern is said to be a veiled allegory against authoritarianism and sexual politics, as it explores such themes as the prisons of men, customs and money, and how one prominent young woman had ultimately sold herself to the wills of a man, and whose life is tragically now limited to the four walls of her compound.