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Home  /  Inside China  /  Gong Li in 'Raise the Red Lantern' and 'Shanghai Triad' – The Tragedy of a Victim who Reinforces the System
Gong Li in 'Raise the Red Lantern' and 'Shanghai Triad' – The Tragedy of a Victim who Reinforces the System print version
In ‘Raise the Red Lantern' (Dà Hóng Dēnglóng Gāogāo Guà-大红灯笼高高挂) and ‘Shanghai Triad' (yáo a yáo, yáo dào wàipó qiáo -摇啊摇,摇到外婆桥) Zhang Yimou portrays cruel authority systems in which the most innocent and conscientious woman, played by Gong Li, becomes the executer of new victims, in the tragic climax of the plot.
In ‘Raise the Red Lantern' (Dà Hóng Dēnglóng Gāogāo Guà-大红灯笼高高挂) Gong Li plays Songlian, a rural woman who marries a rich landlord and becomes his 4th wife, in ‘Shanghai Triad' (yáo a yáo, yáo dào wàipó qiáo -摇啊摇,摇到外婆桥) she plays Xiao Jinbao, the artistic girlfriend of a mafia boss who basically controls Shanghai's the underground world. In both cases she is portrayed as a victim, as a peasant girl who is destined to a life of misery. In the opening scene of ‘Raise the Red Lantern', she acknowledges the fact she will not find true love and agrees to be married to a rich man. From that stage on, she is slowly (but steadily) turning insane. In ‘Shanghai Triad' we first see her as a successful cabaret singer and a fierce lady. However, later on, through the eyes of Shuisheng, the kid protagonist, we understand that she is virtually trapped by the mafia and never had the opportunity to choose her lifestyle.

Songlian and Xiao Jinbao both own servants, possess a huge wardrobe and can even allow themselves to be emotional and bitchy whenever they feel like it. Still, the fact that from a very young age they must adapt themselves to a reality in which they didn't really choose and have to act in accord with the strict rules imposed from above is for them the rejection of freedom.

This tragic reality is indeed displayed powerfully by Zhang Yimou, still the most tragic twist in both stories are the scenes in which both Songlian and Xiao Jinbao cannot handle anymore is their unintentional contribution for the enslavement and murder of other innocent characters. In ‘Raise the Red Lantern' Songlian, in a moment of drunkenness mentions the fact that the 3rd wife has an affair with the estate's physician, an exposure that results in the execution of the 3rd wife by the veteran servants. At first Songlian cannot believe such a harsh punishment could be realized, and the fact that she was the agent of this outcome (in addition perhaps to her being also indirectly response to the death of her servant earlier on) is the last straw in Songlian's mental breakdown.

 Gongli's character Songlian in a contemplating moment, 'Raise the Red Lantern'

In ‘Shanghai Triad', Xiao Jinbao's last wish (she is killed for having an affair with the Boss's number three man) is that Cuihao, a local peasant woman who cooks for the mafia in their island refuge, and her daughter Ajiao would be freed and unharmed. Xiao Jinbao cannot achieve even this little comfort, as the boss tells her he has already killed Cuihao, due to the fact that Xiao Jinbao talked with her and she might know ‘too much'. As for little pretty Ajiao - the boss will take her to his estate in Shanghai and she will grow up to be the new Xiao Jinbao. Hence, the most tragic aspect in Xiao Jinbao's death is the fact she is (partly) responsibe for the horrifying reality, leading to the murder of an innocent peasant and witnessing the new 'mafia life cycle' as a pure happy child is being sentenced to a life of darkness, as Xiao Jinbao herself has been when she was a child.

Zhang portrays such a complex, yet well managed, cruel system of authority in both movies, in which even the most innocent and conscientious woman becomes the executer of other victims. This is the most powerful outcome, one which brings Gong Li's character to the inevitable feeling of despair and insanity as well as induces the discomfort and emotion in the audience seat.

gil hizi

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