THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE Turbulent drama of palace life in Old China
THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE (1960) is quite a spectacular Shaw Bros. costume drama telling the story of the relationship between a benevolent but weak emperor and his favorite concubine, Lady Yang Yuhuan. That relationship is sorely tested on two fronts. First, the emperor takes on a new concubine, leading to a destructive but entertaining tantrum thrown by Lady Yang, in which she breaks numerous vases from the emperor's prize collection and, secondand far worse--a corrupt prime minister's failure to report a revolt leads to the wholesale evacuation of the emperor and his court after the capital is overrun by rebels angry at the prime minister. The emperor and company hole up on the grounds of an abandoned temple. Things come to a head when the soldiers who have protected the party see the prime minister and his wives eating well while they're hungry and thirsty and reduced to sparse provisions. All hell breaks loose after that and Lady Yang has to draw on reserves of courage and self-sacrifice to protect the emperor.
The Celestial/IVL DVD offers a high quality transfer, one of the best digital restorations I've yet seen, although the cut is surprisingly short (72 minutes) for a major big budget release like this. (I haven't been able to determine whether the original running time differs at all.) While the film is short on plot it's big on art decoration and production design, with huge sets showing the palace interiors and long, looming corridors filmed in deep focus. The streets of the city are recreated in detail on the Shaw bros. backlot for scenes of the prime minister and Lady Yang's party traveling through the town, pushing merchants, citizens and passersby aside quite recklessly. In addition, there are some impressive large-scale battle scenes.
Li Li-hua, an early Hong Kong superstar, plays Lady Yang with just the right mix of petulance, imperiousness and, ultimately, nobility. She displays genuine feeling for the emperor and empathy for the angry soldiers. It's an interesting mix and she earns the audience's sympathy along the way. Yang Chi-ching plays the corrupt prime minister and it's one of his best parts in a long career at Shaw. Many familiar Shaw Bros. actors, including Tien Feng and Lee Yun Chung, turn up in small roles.
Unlike most costume dramas done at Shaw in the early-to-mid 1960s, this is not a Huangmei opera. None of the characters sing their dialogue. There are three songs on the soundtrack, two heard in performance by Li Li-hua, who even performs one with a group of dancers in one colorful sequence as two orchestras play, one male and one female. The soundtrack music offers an original Chinese score that's one of the most stirring, evocative and intricate of any I've heard in a Shaw Bros. film. Those interested in the visual (and aural) aspects of Chinese culture and history as seen on film should find this one suitably engrossing.
ADDENDUM: For the record, this film tells the same story as Kenji Mizoguchi's PRINCESS YANG KWEI FEI (1955), which was co-produced by Run Run Shaw. The earlier film offers a much more stately and idealized portrait of the emperor and his companion and their devotion to each other. For instance, we never see Princess Yang, as played by Machiko Kyo, lose her temper. Those interested in the subject would do well to see both films.
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