This is a mostly exceptional story of the fourth wife of a rich man in 1920s China. It is one of those films with such a distinct look it really doesn’t look like anything else.
The film has an aesthetic that really stands out from a lot of films of its time. It is almost entirely set in this large complex, where certain parts look almost identical, which gives the whole film a kind of claustrophobic feel despite the size of the complex. The camera rarely moves and the score is extremely judicious. (Much of the music in the film is performed by people on screen.) When the shaky camera does appear it is sudden, out of nowhere and almost shocking.
The story concerns a family with some very strange customs. (Apparently the lanterns are not in the novella.) These customs emphasize the subjugation of the four wives and they help emphasize the absurdity of the situation. It’s easy to see why this film could both appeal to people in the west – as you can read it as a feminist film, despite its creation by men – and in China – as you can see this, in part as an allegory for how the rich used to treat everyone else before communism.
It’s a striking and remarkable film and it’s one of those films that feels almost perfect. I have some very minor nitpicks. One is that I don’t know why there is a custom for when a maid is [spoiler, redacted]. There are customs for everything in this family, but it seems weird they’d have one for this. And I also didn’t love the final shots. I liked the fifth season, and felt it was very apt. But I felt the use of dissolves was out of style with the rest of the film.