Director Li Han-hsiang (The Kingdom and the Beauty, Love Eternal, Burning of Imperial Palace) had a bit of a fascination with the Empress Dowager, directing, I think, two films with The Empress Dowager as a title, one for Shaw Bros in the 70's and, on the heels of Bertoluccis' success with The Last Emperor, this one in the late 80's
The Empress Dowager is a very important figure in Chinese history, a cold and overbearing monarch, whose blind need for power lead to the downfall of the Chinese hierarchy, made way for the Boxer Rebellion and British rule, and eventually all of this leading to China being governed by Communism. Much like The Last Emperor, The Empress Dowager plays out as a look behind the Forbidden Cities walls, into the double dealing, backstabbing, and power games that played between the two Empress Dowagers, Tzu Hsi, the headstrong of the West, the demure matriarchal of the East, their young and impressionable prince, and a corrupt court official, Elder An. The film also finds a focus in the relationship between the young prince and a girl, Gui Lian (played by a young, pre-Zhang Yimou Gong Li), whose relationship is frowned upon. Gui Lian is married off to Elder An, who may or may not be like all officials inside the city should be, a eunuch, and when she denies his advances, he has her cast out of the city and sold into prostitution. Eventually the young prince begins to break free of his bonds and sneak out into the city where he gains insight into his peoples feelings, is angered by foreign incursion, but also picks up a nasty, deadly venereal disease from prostitutes, debilitating him and forever tainting the royal bloodline. Things slowly degrade from there and for all of her ruthlessness and political dealing, Tzu Hsi is unable to keep her privileged world from falling apart.
The performances are all very good and the direction assured. While a very entertaining film, filled with great intricacies, like the opening montage of Tzu Hsi's pampered bathing routine, it does suffer from some translation problems, a lack of definition for the layman not familiar with Chinese history and culture. I certainly know quite a bit, but I found there were oddly confusing moments that could have used some explanation (or a commentary track by someone more knowledgeable). Some moments are easy to understand, for instance, a lavish reception is being planned with special dinnerware for the occasion, the prince bumps into Gui Lian, causing her to break one of these precious pieces. The seriousness of this is well conveyed as they try to cover it up, such an act cold mean torture or banishment for Gui Lian, and even a beheading for the court officials who help try hide the accident. There are a few musical numbers deftly weaved in which convey the history, give the backstory flesh, but there are aspects of the history clearly understood by its intended Chinese audience that will be vague and confusing to foreigners.
Tzu Hsi is certainly a fascinating figure, a woman who rose from the middle ranks of Chinese society to become an Emperor's concubine, and after his death the primary "behind the scenes" dictator because she was the only woman to bear the emperor a son. Li Han-hsiang and actress Liu Xiaoquing certainly make no concession in presenting her as a hard figure. She is bloodthirsty and harsh, single mined of purpose, only out to control. First, she rules through her son, taking advantage of the infant princes naiveté, then as he gets older she has set herself up as a dominant figure, and as he strikes out on his own, even opposing her and exposing her manipulation, she takes advantage of his illness, and after his death rids the kingdom of his one possible heir by killing (or assisting in the suicide) of his only pregnant concubine. When her fellow Empress has enough and finally begins to exercise her command and threaten Tzu Hsi, we finally see her kowtow and seemingly let down her cold facade, explaining that she had to be hard, someone had to do the dirty work, and she took it upon herself. But, this scene of potential sympathy is revealed to just be another of Tzu Hsi exercising her skills of manipulation. Even if it means the destruction of her culture, she does not care what the cost is, in the end, she is consumed by her need for power.
The DVD: World Video
Picture: Letterboxed. The print is a little dirty and spotty, weak contrast, but overall is pleasant with good sharpness and color.
Sound: Stereo Mandarin or Cantonese Tracks with optional English Subs. The sound is fine, clear, but the subtitles are a different story. I have watched hundreds and hundreds of subtitled films, and here I get a first. In imports (and even DVD reviews), fractured English is to be expected sometimes, and certainly The Empress Dowager quite a bit, such as, "Fix what gardens? All around everything is a mess. Plenty of place to spend money on." and sentences where things are oddly capitalized. Also, when the subtitles are two people speaking, there is nothing to differentiate the speech, like a "-" or "~" break. The text is a different font too, and sometimes the subs are only onscreen for a split second, flashing by too quick... But, here is the really odd thing- Whoever subtitled this chose to write out exclamations, like literally it says "Sigh" when someone sighs, and various "Ay's" and such. This is not a comic book, a sigh is something universal, so it is extremely patronizing to the viewer to spell it out, like we cannot tell someone just forlornly moaned. What's next? Subtitles of "Arrrgh!" when someone is in pain, or "Wahhhhh." when a baby is crying? I hate to think of what a Bruce Lee movie would look like with such subtitling for every noise he makes while fighting.
Extras: 6 Chapters--- Text film Info: The Empress, The Empress on Film, Credits--- Bios and Filmographies for Li Han-hsiang, Liu Xiaoquing, and Gong Li--- World Video Trailers (9 ½ mins)
Conclusion: While this is a fascinating film, well worth a look for anyone interested in Chinese history, unfortunately it all boils down to the transfer. While the image is fine, the subtitles almost manage to ruin the film. With better subtitles I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. But that is not the case, so this is best reserved as a rental for the curious and something to skip for anyone who already hates subtitles. Sigh.