It is not surprising that the Communist Party of China banned the film over there. The very first shot contains overt verbal criticisms of patriarchy ("What else could women get?") and social practices/power structures ("You only care about money. So might as well marry me to a rich man."). Significantly the film is based upon a novel called "Wives and Concubines", but is set in the house of a rich man who keeps only concubines, i.e., no wives -the former possessing a lower social status than would wives, and thus being more expendable. Furthermore the film's own title "Raise the Red Lantern" is more indicative of the dependent position of concubines, specifically, in China.
However, the title of the novel seems an intelligent choice. It may have given (some/many?) mainland Chinese, and other, buyers the impression that they were buying wives and concubines. If that was the case, then even the title is successful in criticizing the commodification and dependent, inferior position of women in China.
As I mentioned above, the film is also attacking those in positions of wealth and power. Songlian (two of whose dialogues I have quoted in the first paragraph) orders around Yang, often humiliatingly, since the power she has been given over Yang is one of the few sources of ego satisfaction, a.k.a., happiness in her life as a concubine. The cruel actions Zhuoyun commits are a result of the same instinct -the desire for the maximum available power, freedom and material happiness. The sense that very little is available -particularly in terms of freedom- to these concubines pervades the film, because it is set within the Cheng household from the third shot onwards.
Since all concubines and would-be-concubines are women the message that very little is available to the mass of Chinese women in general (as stated by Songlian in the very first shot) is also present. After all, we see nothing of Songlian during her father's life time -when she must have been more free and happy than ever again.
The first shot conveys Songlian's rage/unhappiness and her step-mother's selfish utilization of a social practice/position-of-power, concluding with the peaking of emotion: tears being held in by Songlian; a single tear then flowing down her cheek, accompanied by the start of steadily intensifying celebratory/cheerful music.
In the second shot we see the little independence that Songlian has managed to exercise, by knowingly or unknowingly setting off before the procession sent for her. Apart from that, the procession and its aforementioned music is one of the film's many illustrations of a woman's pigeon holed existence; and
"Raise the Red Lantern" is set in pre-Communist China. That doesn't mean that it is a "historical", since it is not concerned with the Why-When-How of patriarchy, women's oppression and exploitation, and the delineation between the rich/powerful and the masses in China. The film is only a criticism of some manifestations of these, and by extension, is criticizing all their manifestations in the past and present. For instance, lighting of red lanterns -representing patriarchal 'benevolence'- could not have been afforded by lower and middle class men. So the film is particularly attacking wealthy and powerful patriarchs, since their lives of convenience are partially responsible for the dirty politicking amongst their wives, concubines, children and servants: When the female servant Yang -who nurtures hopes of becoming a Mistress- realizes that the woman squatting and washing hands in front of her is the Fourth Mistress, she snatches the bowl of water out of her hand. This display of frustration -progressively established as justifiable- in turn provokes Songlian to begin exercising the little power made available to her, but in a more harsh manner than she may have otherwise.
Zhuoyun's instigation of Meishan's hanging is also ultimately a result of her dependent position. As stated by Songlian, these women "are like cats and dogs, but definitely not people".
The soundtrack of the film is remarkably simple, most pieces of sound/music not overlapping with other. In fact, none of the background music accompanies any sustained sound for its entire duration, and vice versa: There is no music accompanying the long foot massages, only short dialogues. And we don't hear the sound of the red lanterns being carried into any Mistress's quarter. That action is announced only by the clanging music that we heard during the pre-1st shot titles.
However, there are moments in the film when the only ambient sound is music: the music of the procession in the second shot of the film; Meishan's opera singing; Feipu's flute-playing.
Some of the same music is, at other points, part of the background. That too has an emotional impact: Songlian's emotional attachment to her father's flute; Songlian's desire for physical and emotional intimacy with Feipu -apparently the only young male in the Cheng household.
Most shots contain delightful colours, textures and shapes. However, what gives one delight in which shot is a variable. For instance, when we first see Meishan singing -after she has been established as a positive presence- the blue colour tone of everything and the red colour of Meishan's garment is most delightful, as is the joy with which Meishan sings; but in a subsequent shot [when the camera tilts up to reveal Songlian] what is most delightful is the inflow of two identical lines from opposite sides of the frame [until the camera halts].
Except Yang, all the people in the employ of the Cheng family -even the head housekeeper- are depersonalized. They possess far less wealth, power and social status than their employees. In fact, Yang's unwillingness to remain a servant also emphasizes this fact.
The servants possess far less wealth, power and social status than the Master, and his concubines and children. So they do what they are told (as stated by one of them). Even hang a Mistress. Significantly, the primary reason behind Meishan's hanging was not a 'sense of betrayal' experienced by the Master, but fear of the Third Mistress's adultery staining his name. So no charges seem to be levelled against Meishan's lover, Doctor Cao. Furthermore, the fact that we see and hear no more of Doctor Cao emphasizes that men get away with more than women.
Another instance that must have particularly bothered the Communist Party of China is the sequence leading to, during and after Meishan's hanging. The true horror and clandestine nature of such incidents -constantly occurring in China and many other parts of the world- is conveyed by, among other facets, showing Meishan and her about-to-be-executors/her executors from various distances. These shots -devoid of any corny or 'horror movie' music, the only sounds being Meishan's muffled shots and the rapid movements of the others- alternate with silent shots of Songlian following them, Songlian peeking at them. As in various other scenes and sequences, peaks of emotion are reached in this as well: when the about-to-be-executors have reached the terrace of the execution room, exposed regions of the black, snow-clad floor look like remains-of-the-dead (or something equally scary) strewn over it; when 2 hand-held shots convey Songlian's breathlessness, as she approaches the once-again-abandoned execution room, her rising breathlessness is conveyed by a piece of chorus music [which more and more voices join in].