Director: Xiaogang Feng
I love Dragon Dynasty movies. I don't care if they're historical or fantasy or modern or futuristic. I'm not even sure why. I resisted watching this for a long time because so many reviews I read said it was rather pointless. If you call Hamlet pointless, then I guess maybe they're right.
Chinese films have this knack for engaging the senses that few other countries' films are able to pull off. This movie is one of the best. The whisper of flesh on flesh, one droplet of blood amid a spattering of water, the scent of incense and votives around a bath tossed with rose petals. All the senses, and all the emotions, are tantalized throughout the movie, while never seeming to push too far or overwhelm the viewer.
Action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (The Matrix, Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, anything that's anything in this genre) creates a stunning showcase around the breathtaking backdrop of the palace during the dying Tang dynasty in 907 AD. Crown Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu, Gen X Cops, Blood Brothers) is devastated when his father, the Emperor, marries Wu Luan's love, the maiden Little Wan (Ziyi Zhang, Hero, Memoirs of a Geisha). His heart breaking, he turns his back on the match his father has set for him with another maiden, Qing (Xun Zhou, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Perhaps Love) , and retreats to the mountains to live a life of dance and music and beauty in a serene theatre.
He lives without news of the palace for several years, while Little Wan, now crowned Empress, and Qing,a courtier, spend an uneasy time in each others' company. One day, however, a message arrives, telling Wu Luan that his father has been killed and his uncle (You Ge, Farewell, my Concubine, Suffocation) has usurped the throne, and the Empress. Enraged, Wu Luan and his fellow actors set up an ambush for the assassins they know will be on their way from his uncle. Making his way through the empire, Wu Luan returns home to find the Empress, his once-beloved Little Wan, a changed woman, seemingly cold and indifferent and surrendering to the charms of the new Emperor.
But things are not all they seem, as Little Wan explains to Wu Luan in a cryptic message. Unable to express her love for Wu Luan, the Empress concocts a plot that will allow the Crown Prince to remain in the palace and take the throne. But she is not the only one with a plot in mind, which is par for the course when a throne is at stake. Qing's father and brother, powerful courtiers, all begin to prepare for their own coups, all to culminate on the eve of the new Emperor's 100th day on the throne. During it all, Wu Luan and Qing spend time together over music and poetry and daydreams, and begin to fall in love, under the watchful, and envious, eye of the Empress.
A mandatory banquet for all courtiers is planned in celebration of the 100 days, and with Qing's life in the hands of the jealous Empress, the stage is set for a final face-off.
It is remarkable how the Empress begins the movie looking like a scared young girl and as the story progresses, thoughout the 100 days she is with the usurper, she begins to look wise, mature, and brave, even stoic. She struggles with the tenderness and passion she finds in her brother-in-law while trying to remain true to the ghost of her husband, and resurrect the love that she once had in Wu Luan. Wu Luan himself must put aside his love peace and beauty and his hatred of violence, and risk the new love he finds in Qing to avenge his father's death. In that struggle there is hidden one of the saddest rape scenes I've seen in a movie, sad because the one whose pain you feel is the rapist.
One thing that I always enjoy about these historical Chinese movies, and honestly, Asian movies in general, in any time period, is that the female villains are so well-rounded that they are downright scary. Female villains in American cinema are usually single-minded and one-dimensional. Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), Fatal Attraction (1987), The Orphan (2009). The characters are either so insane that their motives do not match the means to which they go to seek their end, or they seem to be nothing but a means to an end. They are the fairy tale Wicked Queen after Snow White for being beautiful. Or the Wicked Witch of the West, with all her dastardly plans yet foiled by a little girl with a mop bucket. They never win. Goodness and beauty prevail.
Asian film villainesses have so much more going on in their lives. Little Wan was forced to marry the father of the man she loved and become his step-mother. Then she was forced to marry her husband's brother while having her beloved step-son's betrothed as one of her ladies-in-waiting. Then she was forced to speak out against people who had stood by her first husband. Then she had to watch the love affair between Wu Luan and Qing and see Wu Luan turn away from her to the younger girl. And on and on and still her plan was so well thought-out, with several backups brewing that at least one of them is bound to succeed. Asian villainesses are whole people with loves and losses that they bear quietly, with personalities and loyalties that may hold steadfast or blow like the wind. They are willing to sacrifice one love for one cause, and willing to destroy that same cause for another love. They often make the wrong decision but recover and find another way. I suppose this is the reason that I loathe American films with female villains. The female American villain rarely realizes she is a villain, while the Asian villainess often times struggles with the decision that she knows will make her into a hated woman, while realizing that being hated, even possibly losing her freedom or her life, is necessary for her cause. She steps regally and willingly into the role, knowing that she is to be the guilty party. That isn't to say that she won't struggle to come out ahead. Even when she dies, a part of her has been triumphant, and even when she lives, a part of us is glad.
It's very hard to dislike Asian villainesses because, speaking as a woman, I can see all parts of myself and other women I know in the characters.
So, watch this movie. It's a beautiful story, a sophisticated plot, and a breathtaking visual journey. Not to say that there aren't those scenes that are too wuxia for their own good, tossed in to showcase the balletic elegance of the genre, but it's easy to overlook those 2 or 3 instances for the grandeur that is the rest of the film.