THE LAST TEMPEST - Further machinations of the Empress Dowager in 1890s China
THE EMPRESS DOWAGER (1975) was such a hit for Shaw Bros. that they decided to make a sequel, THE LAST TEMPEST (1976), which takes up the exploits of Emperor Kuang Hsu (Ti Lung) and his antagonistic aunt Cixi, the Empress Dowager (Lisa Lu), in 1898 during the Emperor's attempts to institute radical reforms in governance and political hierarchy. His role models are Peter the Great of Russia and Emperor Meiji of Japan, both of whom undertook massive modernization programs in their countries. The Emperor has a relative, Princess Te-ling (Ingrid Yin-Yin Hu), who has studied in the west and has brought a camera to take pictures of members of the court, and he questions her about ruling customs in western nations. The Princess even brings westerners into the palace to show them Chinese Imperial splendors and introduces them to the scornful Empress Dowager. This is quite a change from the previous film which showed no signs whatsoever of the outside world. When the Emperor gets wind of a plot to overthrow him, he and his top lieutenants, Kang (Ling Yun) and Tan (Yueh Hua), enlist a seemingly sympathetic minister to sway things in their favor. An act of betrayal leads to the Empress Dowager and her contingent taking over the palace and imprisoning the Emperor and his closest concubine, Zhen (Hsiao Yao), while his aides flee the city to safety. All hopes of reform are dashed.
This is much talkier than the previous film and the long dialogue scenes take up so much time that they prevent the narrative from progressing to the next phases, which would include the Boxer Rebellion, the revolutionary movements growing in other parts of the country, and the carving up of China by foreign powers, all prior to the founding of the Chinese Republic in 1911 and the dissolution of the monarchy. Since we hardly get a hint of these developments—I noted a single reference to Sun Yat-sen--we are left with a feeling of utter lack of hope for China. This doesn't add up to a particularly entertaining or enlightening cinematic experience. None of this is helped by the poor subtitling job on the 2002 Celestial Pictures release of this film. I'm not sure if there were things being said in the Mandarin-language dialogue that weren't being translated in full or if the translation was simply awkwardly worded. The dialogue often seemed quite pointless and went on for long stretches. Characters have a way of talking around their points and I kept waiting for a few declarative sentences. While the first film is the stronger of the two, I do think that students of Chinese history and its portrayal on film would find value in viewing both films. The more casual fans of Shaw Bros. historical epics might prefer some of Li Han-Hsiang's earlier films, set in the China of many centuries ago, including EMPRESS WU and THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE (both 1960), both of which I've also reviewed for IMDb.
Wong Yue (DIRTY HO, THE SPIRITUAL BOXER), as the Emperor's chief eunuch and trusted aide, takes over the function served by David Chiang in the previous film. Numerous other Shaw Bros. regulars fill out the cast, some from the previous film, including Ivy Ling Po as the Emperor's neglected wife, and some new to the cast including Ling Yun and Yueh Hua as the top advisers to the Emperor's reform movement. Ti Lung again plays the hapless Emperor who was simply not courageous or shrewd enough to neutralize his imperious aunt. Lisa Lu, primarily known for her Hollywood career, returns as the Empress Dowager, and the character is quite a change of pace from the gentler, more reactive characters she played in Hollywood films and TV shows in the 1950s and '60s. She barks orders and influences the fate of her country with a sharp tongue and a wave of her hand and little else. I'm still not convinced that she dubbed her own voice, as a critic suggested on the audio commentary for THE EMPRESS DOWAGER, which I've also reviewed on this site.
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