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THE EMPRESS DOWAGER All-Star Shaw Bros. Historical Drama
THE EMPRESS DOWAGER (1975) is a lavish historical drama from Shaw Bros. that covers activities in the Chinese Imperial Palace during the years 1894-1895, when China was at war with Japan. Kuang Hsu (Ti Lung) is the Emperor and is frequently at odds with his aunt, Cixi, the Empress Dowager (Lisa Lu) and the true power behind the throne. The film, which was Shaw Brothers' biggest hit of 1975, focuses on intrigue at court and several rounds of spying, eavesdropping, betrayals, deception and manufactured scandals. Through it all, the Emperor's advisers and the Dowager's advisers are locked in a life-or-death struggle over the soul and future of China. "The Ching Dynasty is in peril!" is a common lament in the film. Despite the wise counsel provided by his tutors and mentors, Emperor Kuang Hsu is too weak-willed to stand up to his imperious aunt and take control of the ruling structure. Making things worse is the snaky Chief Eunuch Li (Tien Miao), who is a master at manipulating events at court to undermine the Emperor and strengthen the hand of the Dowager. The Emperor is in favor of war with Japan and has made modernization of the country's military one of his priorities, much to the dismay of the Dowager, who opposes the war. The failure of the appropriate government ministers to carry out the modernization, thanks to the Dowager's intervention, dooms the Chinese war effort and before too long, Japan is offering terms of surrender that will cost China heavily in terms of tribute paid and land given up. As the Emperor falls ill, leaving high-level decisions in the hands of the Dowager, things begin to look bleak for the future of China.
The film's director, Li Han-Hsiang, a master of Shaw Bros. historical epics, has opted to focus on the insular life of these characters in court, occupying a rarefied universe dominated by custom and protocol that seems not to have changed in hundreds of years. The rest of the world is modernizing rapidly, but China has stayed the same. If we weren't told when this was set, we would not be blamed for thinking this was 1694 and not 1894. If I have any objection to the way the story is told, it's that the outside world is deliberately kept outside the purview of the film. I would like to have seen foreign envoys trying to communicate with key members of the regime. A scene or two showing the war with Japan would have offered a jarring contrast to the antics in the palace and would have made the drama more effective. Still, I understand the director's intent to show how completely the Dowager and the Emperor and those in their circles were cut off, as if the outside world didn't exist.
The film is beautifully acted by a regular Shaw Bros. cast, with Ti Lung, as the Emperor, and David Chiang, as a eunuch who becomes his trusted aide, stepping completely out of their kung fu comfort zone to create fully realized characters caught up in the turmoil of the moment and deeply emotionally affected by it. The one non-Shaw cast member is Lisa Lu, who plays the Dowager. She is a Chinese actress who spent much of her adult life in America and even managed to forge a significant acting career in Hollywood films and TV series throughout the late 1950s and 1960s. (Among other credits, she had a regular role in one season of the TV western, "Have Gun Will Travel," and co-starred with James Stewart in the 1960 WWII adventure, THE MOUNTAIN ROAD.) She manages to make the Dowager a commanding and charismatic character whose hold on various court members is easy to understand. Many regular Shaw Bros. actors fill out the cast, with Hao Li Jen as the aged adviser, Prince Kung, standing out in what has to be the largest and most dramatic role I've ever seen him in. Tien Miao, as the calculating Chief Eunuch Li, is also excellent. Ivy Ling Po, as the Empress, has a surprisingly small part. Her character is quickly overshadowed by the Emperor's newest concubine, Chen (Hsiao Yao), whose obvious devotion to the Emperor makes her a more valuable and trusted companion, which also makes her vulnerable to false accusations by the opposition, creating a scandal at court.
The production is quite lavish, with larger interior sets than I've ever seen in a Shaw Bros. movie, and spectacular costumes and design. This was apparently shot on sets constructed on two adjoining soundstages with the walls removed between them. There is a Peking Opera performance midway through the film that is quite elaborate as well. A sequel, THE LAST TEMPEST (1976), also reviewed on this site, does show some westerners on the scene and some English is spoken in it. It focuses on events in the late 1890s, including the Emperor's ill-fated attempts at reform, all prior to the Boxer Rebellion. In the audio commentary on the Celestial Pictures R3 DVD edition of THE EMPRESS DOWAGER, critic Peter Tsi says he believes Lisa Lu dubbed her own voice in Mandarin. Having seen THE MOUNTAIN ROAD and a number of Ms. Lu's American TV appearances, I'm somewhat doubtful, since it doesn't sound like Ms. Lu at all. I'm not sure how to confirm this.
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