International Cinema Thursday: Raise the Red Lantern and Mormon Perceptions of Polygamy

There are some fantastic movies at International Cinema this week! I was going to examine La Faute à Fidel ! but everybody knows that the French aren't real communists, so why waste my time?

Just kidding. I'm focusing today on 大红灯笼高高挂 or, in lay, Raise the Red Lantern. This is mainly because I want to see how Mormons react to polygamy in other cultures.

Raise the Red Lantern is a 1991 film in Mandarin set in 1920's rural China. This is an era of warlords and much concubinage. The film concerns the four mistresses of the wealthy Master Chen and focuses on the ever-shifting power struggle within the household. There, you have the broad strokes.

Now, I want you Mormons out there to consider this: when you see this movie, how will you view the portrayal of polygamy?

Recently I read Things Fall Apart in a class taught by Prof. Cheri Earl. I brought up this point in a round-table discussion, asking the question, "As Mormons, how do we feel about polygamy in other societies?" The question kind of fell flat. This was surprising and then, immediately, not surprising. Is there even an answer to that question? Luckily, the magnanimous Prof. Earl posed the question again. There we began our discussion.

One of the first comments was that, "Well I certainly couldn't relate to it. I took it as part of the novel and moved on, much the same way that when I consider our own history, I take it as something that was simply part of the culture and move on."

Let's look, then, at two ideas:

1) Do we understand polygamy in other societies so easily because we are conditioned to view other cultures in a way that naturally assumes they will practice what we, in our society, consider abominable?

and 2) How is that we can't relate to the polygamy of our own immediate past (and present in some cases) but we can relate to, say, personal diaries of our ancestors or church leaders? Or, for that matter, the D&C? We have very close personal and emotional ties to a great portion of that part of our history, and yet, the polygamy is glossed over?

There may be no answers to these questions. They might not even be questions. But I suggest you at least see the movie and think about the questions. What else are you going to do this weekend? Go to homecoming?


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