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In eighth century China, the Emperor is grieving over the death of his wife. The Yang family wants to provide the Emperor with a consort so that they may consolidate their influence over the court. General An Lushan finds a distant relative working in their kitchen whom they groom to present to the Emperor. The Emperor falls in love with her and she becomes the Princess Yang Kwei-fei. The Yangs are then appointed important ministers, though An Lushan is not given the court position he covets. The ministers misuse their power so much that there is a popular revolt against all the Yangs, fueled by An Lushan. Written by
Sometimes its a good idea not to read up on a movie before watching it, it can set up an expectation (or lack of it) that interferes with viewing pleasure. In the newly released Masters of Cinema version the critic Tony Raines is highly dismissive in the introduction - calling it dramatically inert and making a few rather pompous and pedantic points about the translation. Donald Richie in his 'Hundred Years of Japanese Film' is similarly dismissive. It is certainly not Mizoguchi's best, it lacks the flair of Ugetsu and the character development of his more contemporary dramas, but I think this movie is far better than the dismissive comments suggest. Maybe its just that Japanese cinema of the period is so fabulously rich that even very good movies can be discounted.
The story is taken from an ancient Chinese legend - of the beautiful concubine of a great emperor, sacrificed for the sins of her family. No doubt the Chinese setting looks rather ludicrous to Chinese viewers (it was originally a co-production with HK based company, but they seem to have had no artistic input), but thats hardly new - even Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger was hated by most mandarin speakers I know. And its probably no worse that the Last Samurai or Memoirs of a Geisha appears to the Japanese.
It was Mizuguchi's first colour film - while some commentators have praised the beauty of the camera-work, I must admit I was left a big cold by it - not a patch on (for example) Ozu's first colour experiments. It may be that the blame is the digital colour transfer or just my poor quality screen, but I think its more than that - I get the strong impression the movie was shot on a very tight budget - some of the sets look very fake compared to most Mizoguchi' films I've seen. I don't think the film makers were totally aware of how colour can show up fakery in a way they could get away with using black and white. In fact, the whole movie has a slightly throw away feel, as if Mizoguchi didn't fully have his heart in it. There are lots of opportunities for the sort of big sweeping scene he specialised in, but which aren't taken up here - I would guess that he simply didn't have the time and budget for it.
But I don't mean to criticise this too much - while the script is occasionally clunky, it is usually very moving and beautifully acted. The characters are vivid and while its a little bit much to believe that a great Emperor could be quite such a sappy soul, Mori and Kyo do a reasonable job in making their characters believable - or as believable as possible when translating such an ancient story. Kyo as always is wonderfully watchable. Mori is slightly less successful - he doesn't quite show the steel that much have existed under the cultured exterior of a man who ran an empire.
So while this film is certainly not a masterpiece by Mizoguchi, or one of the best movies of the period, its certainly superior to most contemporary costume dramas and well worth having to while away a rainy Sunday afternoon.
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