Set during the 1920s, the story begins with a young woman who, after the death of her father, must leave the university she was attending due to her family's difficult financial situation. Since finishing her education is no longer a possibility, she is urged by her mother to marry, and so she feels forced to accept marriage to a wealthy landowner, thus becoming his fourth wife.
Adapted from the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong, the film depicts the arrival of Songlian (Gong LI) during the summer, her struggle to adapt to the confinement of the household and the infighting between the wives, and the loss of her dreams for a more fulfilling life. She is isolated in the enormous courtyard house, separated from family and her former life as a university student. The Master of the estate is a distant figure who is only concerned that his wives provide him with male heirs and pleasurable diversion. As Songlian gradually learns more about the family's history and traditions, the story builds to a dramatic conclusion during the winter when she inadvertently precipitates a series of events that have terrible consequences.
The skillful direction and deliberate pace of the story, excellent cinematography and fine performances by the actors all make this film worthy of being included among the best films of the 1990s. Strangely enough, because of the perception of a subtle political allegory at work in the story, the film encountered some difficulty in its homeland during its initial release, but since that time it has become widely available.
Two DVDs of Raise The Red Lantern were released in 2006, and the most recent remastered release by ERA appears to have put to rest the concerns about image quality that plagued another version distributed by Razor Entertainment. See a comparison of the image quality here.
Although Zhang Yimou has gone on to make films with larger budgets since the early '90s, more than a few critics consider Raise The Red Lantern to be his finest work. Certainly, it is a film that rewards even the casual viewer with many fascinating insights into Chinese culture.
A long overdue thanks is due to Hilary and the members of the Clarity forum for the link to my blog and for recommending the method of working with multiple changing lines that I posted (it has been a while, I know). Hilary's site hosts what is very probably the liveliest and most widely viewed Yijing forum on the Web (a link has been added in the sidebar), and she has helped in many ways to advance the study of the Yijing. Thanks Hilary!