As the seasons of her first year turn over, Songlian finds it difficult to endure the stifling, empty life of a concubine and the relentless household intrigues. Outmaneuvered at every turn, she falls from favor and vents her anger by cruelly avenging herself on Yan’er. This last petty attempt to assert herself backfires, leaving her guilt-ridden. Chastened and depressed, Songlian celebrates her 20th birthday by wallowing in wine and self-pity, but a slip of the tongue while drunk sets in motion a final disaster. The film’s ending mirrors the beginning: the household welcomes the arrivals of a 5th mistress.
But for all that the film is also a triumph of the visual arts. Acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s strict architectural compositions and ruler-straight angles, not to mention the absence of any exterior shots beyond the compound, enforce the shackled atmosphere, and yet all the while he's also seducing us. The meticulous art direction, from silks to shingles, plunges the viewer into luxury and elegance that is hard not to admire (though some critics have accused Zhang of pandering to foreign demand for Orientalism). Red, a color already deeply associated with both China and Zhang personally (see his debut film, Red Sorghum) takes on a spectrum of meanings too plentiful to analyze here, but its sheer visual impact in the hands of his cinematographer is reason enough to see the film.
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City of Life and Death
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