(Sony Classics) Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Liu Ye, Ni Dahong, Qin Junjie, Li Man, Chen Jin. Directed by Zhang Yimou
It is a well-known Western aphorism that it is lonely at the top. It is also true, universally, that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
During the Tang Dynasty in the 10th century, the Emperor (Fat) returns home with his son, Prince Jai (Chou) from war against the Mongols to celebrate the Chrysanthemum festival. However, all is not well at home. The Empress (Li) is very ill, despite regular doses of medicine. And, shockingly, she is having an affair with Crown Prince Wan (Ye), her husband’s son by his first marriage.
This is not just a dysfunctional family, it’s a homicidal one. The Empress isn’t just ill; she’s being poisoned with a rare Persian fungus which will eventually drive her insane. This is being done by the court doctor (Dahong) on the orders of the Emperor. It seems he is a mite ticked off at his wife.
In a move of self-preservation, she enlists the help of Jai to overthrow his father. He is at first reluctant, but when he sees the condition of his mother he is moved to vow that she will never drink the poison again. This sets the stage for an epic battle in the very hallways of the Imperial Palace, one of the most lavish and ostentatious ever known.
This is one of the most visually arresting movies ever, with bright colors dominating the sets and costumes. The palace is aglitter with Chinese art glass, crystal columns lit from inside in shades of red, gold, green and blue. Armies in gold armor clash with armies in obsidian. Assassins fly like wraiths through the air, throwing wicked curved swords to filet their victims. Pots of chrysanthemums fill a huge courtyard to the very steps of the palace. It is certainly a feast for the eyes.
It is also a soap opera on steroids. The story, taken from Thunderstorms, a 1933 play written by Chinese playwright Cao Yu, is full of juicy palace intrigue, forbidden love and terrible secrets. Chow Yun Fat, one of the most honored actors in Asia, plays the Emperor as a brutal man – not necessarily an evil one. His loyalty is to his throne, even ahead of his family. It’s a difficult role, but Fat handles it with grace.
Director Yimou is reunited with his longtime leading lady Li, who collaborated with him on such classic movies as Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou. She is beautiful and regal here, but is most often called upon to express revulsion and shake like a leaf at the effects of her poisoning. Pop star Chou is solid as the heroic Prince Jai, put into an impossible situation.
There is a good deal more CGI here than is usual with wuxu films but it adds to the epic scope and awesome majesty of the movie. The detail is extraordinary and one must pay tribute to the artisans who worked on the set and costumes, most of which are authentic. Sure, there is some quibbling with historical accuracy (for example, the armor worn by the competing armies in the final battle were not the sort that Chinese soldiers of the time would have worn for anything other than ceremonial purposes; also, the architecture of the palace was more suitable to the 15th century although the interior is more or less accurate) but that’s all right; you won’t want to see this as a history lesson. Indeed, this is one of the most stunning movies I’ve seen from a visual aspect ever; Cecil B. DeMille would have certainly approved.
WHY RENT THIS: Out of this world visuals make this a stunning feast for the eyes. Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li are two of the premiere actors in Asian cinema today and they show why that reputation has been earned here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The soap opera aspect is a bit over-the-top in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The battle scene is extremely violent, and there is some implied incest.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Imperial Palace exterior is the largest set ever built in China. The battle scene set there took over twenty days to shoot.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The making-of documentary is particularly interesting in how the sets were constructed, the costumes made and the overall theme to the movie.
FINAL RATING: 9/10