Northern China, the 1920s. Having agreed - to spite both her stepmother and fate - to become the fourth wife of an ageing, wealthy clan-leader, 19-year-old Songlian (Gong Li) finds herself immured in a palatial complex plagued by paranoia, jealousy and intrigue. The red lanterns, hung outside the suite of whichever wife is currently the object of the master's attentions, are an index of power; and Songlian, determined to wrest control from her rivals, feigns pregnancy. But the real power, of course, lies with the master, and the women's in-fighting yields tragic results. Dealing, like Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, with a young woman married to an older man and struggling to survive in a society defined by oppressive patriarchal tradition, Zhang's film elicits a strong sense of déjà vu. The lavish, schematic colours hold considerable appeal, while the atypical symmetry and stillness of the compositions stress the strait-jacket mores of a stagnant feudal culture. The acting is excellent, too, but one can't help but feel that Zhang has said it all before and more imaginatively.
Cast and crew