The Qiao Family Compound (乔家大院), a vast, sprawling 18th century estate in Shanxi province, is perhaps best known as the location for Zhang Yimou’s legendary film, Raise the Red Lantern. In the film, the house becomes that of Master Chen’s, and as tragedy is sowed in the seeds of bitter resentment and egomania, those dusty courtyards look on, unfazed, endowed with vibrant, violent color –– every shade of red, yellow, orange, like blood, like pus, like joy, like flushed cheeks, like warmth, like silk, like death.
Set in the tumultuous Warlord era of 1920s China, post-Revolution, pre-Civil War, the main character is Songlian (Gong Li), an empty-eyed young woman with an ever-so-slight overbite that trembles with fear and solitude over the collars of her lush collection of qipao. Following the death of her father and the bankruptcy of her family, she is pulled out of university and married off to a rich man to become his fourth concubine. Within that enclosed microcosm, insulated from the outside world, she soon realises that the house is a jungle ecosystem with wives and servants alike vying for the Master’s attention, going to great lengths to elevate themselves over the others. Songlian herself becomes angry, calculating. Snow falls, fire burns, ropes hang, and dawn glitters. Solitary figures scramble over the rooftops, as small and insignificant as the brick tiles beneath their feet. Their hearts are frozen over, unfeeling, unseeing.