A tangled network of romantic, sexual and political intrigues is eclipsed by exquisite production values.

A tangled network of romantic, sexual and political intrigues is eclipsed by exquisite production values in the complex Japanese period meller “Oh-oku: The Women of the Inner Palace.” Pic reps a bigscreen finale to a popular Nipponese tube miniseries, but effectively functions as a stand-alone experience that echoes “Elizabeth” in its high-court shenanigans and surpasses the Western imposture of “Memoirs of a Geisha” for authenticity. Released last Christmas, pic garnered strong local biz, but fidelity to historical rhythms may make this opulent effort hard work even for international fest auds.

Based on actual events, the story kicks off during the early 18th century when, after the death of his father, 5-year-old Iegetsu Tokugawa becomes the new shogun of Tokyo. Iegetsu’s mother is beautiful concubine Gekkoin (Haruka Igawa), who, by giving birth to the heir, has usurped the pole position held by the deceased shogun’s wife, Teneiin (Reiko Takashima).

Claws barely concealed behind elegant costumes, Teneiin sees a political opportunity when she deduces that her rival is conducting an illicit romance with the young shogunate’s inexperienced chief political adviser, Manabe (Mitsuhiro Oikawa). The protector of Gekkoin’s secret is the Inner Palace’s head matron, 28-year-old virgin Ejima (Yukie Nakama), who is besotted with handsome Kabuki actor Shingoro (Hidetoshi Nishijima).

Unable to directly attack Gekkoin, Teneiin hires Shingoro to seduce the smitten Ejima. According to Teneiin’s plan, threats of exposure will force Ejima to betray Gekkoin to the elders of the shogun council, undermining the concubine and her infant ruler’s power base. Drama of whether Ejima will or won’t surrender to the man who may or may not love her is the narrative’s backbone.

Slow-moving yarn requires auds to keep alert, but there is plenty to appease the eye while the drama builds incrementally to its tragic, romantic climax. Multiple outdoor crowd scenes, re-enactments of Kabuki performances and repeated shots of beautifully adorned women shuffling along palace corridors stylishly, though inadequately, cover for a lack of narrative dynamism.

Perfs are solid across the tatami, but intricacy of Japanese high-court etiquette and sluggish pacing will deter Western auds. Each new character is introduced with an untranslated subtitle giving his or her name and position. Even with English dubbing, beginning will find most Western auds struggling to keep up with who’s who.

In a standard sop to Japanese auds, pic ends with a modern pop song that demolishes period atmosphere. All tech credits are impeccable.

Oh-oku: The Women of the Inner Palace

Japan

Production

A Toei presentation of a Fuji Television Network, Toei, FNS, Toei Video production. (International sales: Pony Canyon Inc., Tokyo.) Produced by Kenichiro Hobara, Osamu Tezuka, Yasushi Ogawa, Kaoru Matsuzaki, Noriko Koyanagi. Executive producers, Chihiro Kameyama, Sunao Sakagami. Directed by Toru Hayashi. Screenplay, Taeko Asano.

Crew

Camera (color), Shoji Ehara, Akira Hamana; editor, Hideyuki Ochiai; music, Katsunori Ishida, Kumi Koda; production designer, Takashi Yoshida, sound (Dolby Digital), Kazuhisa Hibi. Reviewed on DVD, Sydney, Aug. 17, 2007. (In Montreal World Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 126 MIN.

With

Yukie Nakama, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Haruka Igawa, Mitsuhiro Oikawa, Kaoru Sugita, Shinobu Nakayama, Machiko Washio, Kaori Yamaguchi, Maki Kubota, Yuki Matsushita, Yuko Asano, Reiko Takashima.
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