Sally Jane Black’s review published on Letterboxd:
I've not much time to write this, so my thoughts are going to be more disjointed than usual:
I was reminded of Bluebeard as I watched this, and ultimately, it did not fail to fulfill the expectation created by that connection. Like in the legend of Bluebeard, multiple generations of women are housed in a castle by a dominant patriarch (though unlike the legend, these women live here all at once). Like in the legend, there is a room that means death. Like in the legend, traditions rule the house. Expectations dictate behavior, and deviation means chaos.
Unlike in the legend, the women of this story are all present in the same time, and their interactions form the bulk of the film. It's interesting how easily a political situation is crafted in a story--you just put power at the center, create a limited amount of it, and watch the various factions vie for it. The four mistresses of the Chen house vie for the attention of their master because with him comes the comforts of the house. On such a small scale, politics feels like the wrong word for it, but I don't know how else to describe it. It's intrigue, betrayal, subtleties, and rituals all combining to alter the flow of power between the four women (when, of course, it all derives from the master of the house).
That we never clearly see the master seems to be a clear indicator that he is intended as a cipher for the patriarchal system in general, and he definitely conveys all of the oppressive qualities of the patriarchy as a whole. Witness his assumptions cause so much pain to Songlian (the fourth mistress) as he reveals he had her flute burned--the presumptive nature of those in power that no one else matters, that they are always right, wreaks havoc on those who suffer from it. This is the most subtle example of his privilege in the film, perhaps, but it stands out as more insidious than any other (save, of course, the blood on his hands).
There's a lot to be said for the stunning setting and cinematography, the oddly whimsical nature of the house they live in (and walk across the roofs of), and the way it captures what a limited world the concubines live in while showing us enough to leave no doubt of how much they are missing out on. Through scale and angle (witness those glimpses of how vast the house is, and of how beautiful the wide expanse of the sky is), we are shown just how much a prison these women are in.