Opening 26 Apr 2007
Emperor Ping (Yun-Fat Chow) returns to the palace with his second son Jai after a military maneuver. Jai runs to greet his mother, Empress Phoenix (Gong Li). She is embroidering thousands of yellow chrysanthemums onto silk. Everything must be prepared for the Chrysanthemum Festival on the ninth day of the ninth month. Millions of yellow mums are planted in front of the palace, which is quite fitting since the royal color is yellow any time of the year. There is a formal hierarchy between the king and his wife, as well as among the three sons: crown prince Wan, second son Jai, and third son Yu. In an atmosphere of formalities and little privacy, ugly truths slowly emerge. There is attempted murder (slow poisoning of the empress by the emperor with the aid of the court physician) and incest (the queen with her step-son Wan, and Wan with his half-sister Jiang Chan). There are power plays among the sons; Jai attempts to protect his mother.
Director Chang Yimou tests your patience with an extremely slow plot that is neither exciting nor unique. Viewers familiar with his (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) and other Chinese directors’ use of action and kung-fu must hold out until the end for a huge battle between a yellow-clad army against a silvery black one. These days, I suspect that huge armies stem from digital copying without the use of many real actors. The warriors trample the flowers; blood flows and in the end, many of the main characters are no longer standing. One of my stars is for the tremendously opulent sets, from the palace and the costumes and the armour to the furniture, the food, and even the dishes. All the women wear empire style gowns with much naked bosom glistening in the muted light – something I can’t remember seeing in similar Chinese films. The second star is for Gong Li, who vacillates between determination and revenge to empty-eyed madness. She seemed like a Chinese Meryl Streep who could have put a new twist into The Devil Wears Prada. (Becky Tan)