LADY OF THE DYNASTY (2015) review

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A troubled project which started pre-production in 2009 with My Sassy Girl director Kwak Jae-Yong at the helm and Fan Bing Bing, John Lone and Wang Leehom as its leads, Lady of the Dynasty finally reached completion and release in 2015, after a series of starts and stops that saw Kwak replaced by Shi Qing (a man whose sole previous credit is as a writer on the 1989 Zhang Yimou thriller Codename Cougar) on the basis of artistic differences, while Leon Lai and Wu Chun stepped in to replace Lone and Wang, respectively ; Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang (director of The Go Master) chimed in as consultants and get co-directing credits. But for a film that spent so much time in the oven and had so many cooks, Lady of the Dynasty turns out oddly half-baked. It focuses on Yang Guifei (Fan Bingbing), one of the “Four Great Beauties of Ancient China” who has already been the subject of many films and TV series, most notably Kenji Mizoguchi’s Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955), the 1962 Shaw Brothers film The Magnificent Concubine and the 2007 mini-series Lotus Garden of Tang Dynasty, already starring Fan Bingbing. Chosen by Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty (Leon Lai) and his concubine Wu (Joan Chen) to marry their son Li Mao (Wu Chun), she then left him to be a Taoist monk, before being chosen by the emperor to become his concubine. Later, when a rebellion broke out, the emperor fled with her but was then asked to execute her as a scapegoat.

Lady of the Dynasty takes liberties with the already blurry historical facts, weaving in betrayals and grand romantic gestures that may or may not have happened. But the film’s central problem is that the character of Yang Guifei is simply not that interesting. The film portrays her as a woman defined not by any notable achievement, but by the sacrifices she made and the amount of emotional torment she had to go through. While this highlights her courage and sense of abnegation, she is never in charge of her own destiny, serving as a prize of sorts, passed from prince to emperor, mercilessly rocked about by political intrigue she by her own admission does not comprehend. Whether this is historically accurate is up for scholars to debate, but it doesn’t make for a compelling central character. Nor is there any real commentary on the place of women in the Tang dynasty ; a wonderful Joan Chen easily overshadows Fan in the first quarter, playing the much more interesting Concubine Wu, a tragic, scheming but heartfelt character, but she’s quickly disposed of. Rather, Shi Qing’s main goal seems to be to cram as many scenes as possible of Fan Bingbing dancing in lush dresses against CGI backdrops, playing the harp in ornate bedrooms, bouncing her cleavage on a horse or taking long baths among rose petals. Not that all this isn’t pleasing for the eye, on the contrary, but it should be the icing on the cake of a multi-faceted character. This film is a cupful of icing.

The film is narrated by Tacitus (Steve Boergadine, a passable gweilo actor), a bishop and ambassador from the Byzantine Empire, and here again the film drops the ball on what could have given way to interesting cultural commentary, as the character is merely an exposition machine, dispensing cursory explanations that allow the film to hop from one scene to another without having to tie them together in a narratively organic way. Only in one short moment does it show a glimmer of a challenging idea, when the bishop and the Emperor’s eunuch and counsellor (a typically excellent Wu Gang) converse on the similitudes in their responsibilities, burdens and sacrifices. Stranded in the film’s hollow showiness, the lead trio does its best : Fan Bingbing knows this kind of role like the back of her hand by now and makes a valiant go at it in the film’s more pathos-infused scenes, like one in which, filled with jealousy at a rival concubine, she alternatively laughs, cries and dances as her bewildered servants look on. Wu Chun’s lightweight presence actually serves him well in the role of the timid Prince Li Mao, but he’s absent during long stretches, and doesn’t leave much of a mark, except in his character’s final redemption. But of the three, it is Leon Lai who actually impresses, displaying a heretofore unsuspected sense of gravitas (age becomes him) to augment his usual restraint (some say blandness) and skillfully portraying the emperor as an overblown and conflicted man nevertheless capable of great tenderness and humility. The film’s critical and financial failure means it is unlikely to rake in awards, but Lai would deserve recognition for his performance.

Visually the film is a mixed bag. When in interiors, it is as gorgeous as any of co-director Zhang Yimou’s films, a true feast for the eyes with some impressive and lavish costume work. Step outside however, and gouge your eyes at the sight of some of the most fake-looking CGI backdrops and green-screen work in any recent big production. A scene in which the princes play a game of polo in a giant arena has to be seen to be believed in what is a $30M blockbuster (still a hefty sum for a Chinese film) : each character stands out from the background in the most jarring way possible, as if the whole thing had been made with a pair of scissors and some glue. Zbigniew Preisner’s choral score works overtime to give the film the grandeur it obviously aspires to, helping it achieve sadly unfrequent moments of grace.

Long Story Short : Often visually pleasing but overblown and hollow, Lady of the Dynasty strands its talented cast in uninspired pathos and smoothed-out history. **

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