Yi-Mou Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern, is a beautiful and brilliantly made film in its own right. If, however, the team of Orson Welles and Greg Toland had produced the same film it would take on an entirely different look and feel. The film would reflect Wells love for creating physical representations of thematic metaphors and the long take and Toland’s brilliant use of deep space photography and mobile framing.
Under the direction of the Wells-Toland team, the film would take on subtle, yet significant differences from the very beginning.
In the opening scene, with Songolian and her stepmother, the focus of the camera would still be a medium close up of Songolian; but, the previously unseen mother would now be seen in the extreme background and edges of the frame. Using deep focus and choreographing her movements the mother’s character would still remain faceless, but would seem more tangible and the feeling of distance between the mother and her stepdaughter could be re- enforced.
The next major difference would be seen in the sequences involving Songolian’s entrance into the house itself. In Zhang’s original version, Songolian enters the frame with the inscription on the back wall shown briefly. The W-T revision would begin the entrance sequence with a medium close up of the inscription itself, slowly panning from left to right, just slowly enough to recognize the characters but fast enough to not allow the audience to actually read the inscription. The significance of the inscription on the wall has been explained as being not in the inscription, but in the characters themselves: in the oldest Chinese societies the written characters were created with arbitrary meaning assigned to them, only scholars and the aristocracy had the time and means to learn the meanings of the thousands of different characters used.
The characters on the wall are alluding to a society which was dominated by male figures who arbitrarily created meaning and tradition.
Zhang filmed the movement through the house in a series of shots usually cutting from the entrance into a archway or gate, to the exit on the other side from the same. This style creates a feeling of disorientation and the layout of the house is never really established for the audience. The W-T duo would probably have filmed the various movements through the ground levels of the house in a series of long-takes with tracking shots. The shots, starting from approximately rooftop level, would then track forward and down to follow the movement of a character through the complex, rising up and ‘crawling’ over arches and entrance ways and then dropping down again. Instead of placing an emphasis on the feeling of the palace’s physical ‘discontinuity’ created by Zhang’s shots, this change would emphasize the magnitude of the structure itself, reenforcing the feeling of a well established and developed tradition and the insignificance of one small woman.
The other type of movement followed in the story is the movement above roof level. The W-T team would handle this in a much different fashion than Zhang. The movement above roof level represents freedom of various kinds and ultimately, escape. Welles would want the camera movement in the roof scenes to reflect this, consequently, the movement of a character on the roof would be filmed in a continuous take. The shot would probably be a tracking shot that changed angle and distance continuously, possibly even violating the 180 degree rule, in order to give the camera a bird like point of view. The other type of shot used above the roof level would be the fixed frame shots involving two or more characters at a distance; Toland would again use this opportunity to utilize his mastery of deep focus, keeping both of the characters in focus while displaying the distance between the two.
In the next scene Songolian, enters her house for the first time. Zhang used a long shot to show her standing in the middle of the room, surveying her new accommodations. The W-T team would have used a longer shot, possibly even an extremely long shot in this instance. As the lanterns are being lit, the central chandelier above the bed would probably be shot from a bird’s eye perspective as it was being lowered and then a floor shot as it was being raised. The change in distance would make Songolian seem even smaller in the huge room, a tiny woman surrounded buy countless, huge red lanterns signifying the family traditions.
When the husband is finally introduced into the film, the W-T team would shoot the husband as a faceless character, just as Zhang had done. The technical difference, however would be that W-T, would use a shot/reverse-shot sequence with the husband in order to better display the distance between himself and Songolian. This would be a perfect opportunity for Toland’s mastery of the use of deep space. Shooting close to the husband from below shoulder level toward Songolian would create a better physical metaphor for the emotional distance between the two.
Frequently in the film there are shots of the inner court-areas of the houses of various wives, shown with the red lanterns burning against the darkness of the night. Zhang, in his version, shoots these from a high angle and the camera is fixed in the inner courtyard. W-T would shoot this as a tracking shot, moving from a high angle shot of at least one of the dark inner courts and then pulling back to pan across the darkened compound, then moving to another high angle shot of the court with the lit lanterns. There are frequently points in the story where the husband leaves the house during the night to go to another house. The W-T team would shoot this from a high angle shot of the lit inner-court as the lanterns are extinguished and then use a tracking shot to ‘crawl’ along the compound to the house where the lanterns being lit, then the camera would pan back in the direction it had come to reveal the dark compound.
The dining room is a central point in Zhang’s version of the film and would also be pivotal in the W-T version. Songolian is shown the dining room when she is given her tour of the house. The W-T version of this scene would closely resemble the Zhang version with one key difference. The W-T camera would raise to the faces of the portraits of the ancestors, move to a close up and then pan around the room giving us a shot representative of Songolian’s perspective. In the first dining scene the establishing shot would be the same shot that was originally used. The long shot that was used to establish the parameters of the room and provide a subtle suggestion of the thematic implication of the scene would take on new meaning under the direction of the Wells-Toland team. The Spartan room, surrounded on three sides by portraits of past patriarchs of the family was visible in the establishing shot, but the presence of the ‘family men’ is only alluded to; with Toland’s use of deep focus the portraits of the patriarchs could be brought into clear perspective, bringing the idea of the influence of the ancestors more securely into the scene.
As the scene progresses Zhang’s original sequence of shot, reverse-shot wold still be used, and the camera’s height would remain above the table level; the important difference between the Zhang’s shots and the W-T shots would be the camera’s angle. W-T would lower the camera slightly and drastically increase the angle in order to include the faces of the long deceased patriarchs in the same frames with the wives in the close-ups and medium close-ups. This change, in conjunction with deep focus, would alter the thematic implications of these scenes by introducing the faces of these nameless men directly into the world of the wives, they would be literally, looking over their shoulders.
The most significant change in the film would come during the scene when Meishan is hung. Wells would want to convey Songolian’s feeling of fear and confusion and Toland would accomplish this by using a long take beginning when Songolian first sees the lanterns coming through the archway. The camera would then shift to a P.O.V. shot representing Songolian following the men up to the rooftop. Reaching the rooftop level the camera would rush forward to reveal a medium long shot of the men taking Meishan into the room, then turn on its axis and rush back toward Songolian to display the revelation on her face and her fear. Finally, the camera would circle behind Songolian in a very long reverse shot and Toland’s masterful deep focus would display the men leaving the room upon completion of the act.