Like a Bollywood movie, only with lousy dancing and no songs, “Lady of the Dynasty” — a screen representation of the tragic romance between the Tang Emperor and one of the four greatest beauties in Chinese history — is crammed with garish spectacle and military jingoism, but is so poorly paced and dramatically uninvolving it barely passes muster as entertainment. Businessman-turned-helmer Shiqing, who shares directing credits here with Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang, is bent on conjuring the Tang dynasty’s golden age of internationalism, tolerance and artistic freedom as a mirror of contempo China, but his lack of narrative finesse turns whole chunks of the film into a dry political tract on foreign policy. Domestically, the film was a critical and B.O. flop, but its gaudy aesthetics could have trashy camp appeal for foreign genre buffs.
The project was first announced in 2011 as a Chinese-Japanese co-production with South Korea’s Kwak Jae-yong (“My Sassy Girl”) at the helm. However, Kwak left the production because his pursuit of more authenticity and less glamour allegedly irked mainland investors. Since then, the pic has evolved into the vanity project of former PCCW China region CEO Cheng Shiqing (billed as Shiqing), who, in addition to mentoring from Zhang and Tian, also was rumored to have enlisted other top filmmakers like Li Yu and Lu Chuan to take turns as executive directors. This may account for the disjointed narrative, dissonant emotional registers and a lack of individual style.
Emperor Xuanzong, or Li Longji, held the longest, most glorious reign (712-756 A.D.) of the Tang dynasty. However, his exclusive favoring of Imperial Concubine Yang Yuhuan in his old age was censured as a sign of decline in governing power. When An Lushan, a general of Gokturk-Sogdian ethnicity, instigated a devastating rebellion, the imperial troops mutinied, demanding the execution of Yuhuan and her much-loathed brother, Chancellor Yang Guozhong.
This significant historical episode was immortalized as a testament to all-consuming passion in Bai Juyi’s “Song of Everlasting Regret,” one of the canons of Chinese poetry; the story has been famously adapted for the screen by Kenji Mizoguchi and Li Han-hsiang. Fan Bingbing plays Yuhuan, a role she already already essayed alongside Winston Chao as the Emperor in the 2007 TV drama “Hibiscous Garden of Great Tang,” to more engaging effect.
This version of the saga is narrated by Tacitus (Steven Boergadine), a supposed bishop of the Byzantine Empire visiting China as an envoy. A foreigner’s perspective sometimes affords thought-provoking alternative visions of history, but in this case he only gushes obsequiously about Chinese culture and the wholesale denigration of Western civilization, spouting stilted lines like: “While my cherished Roman Empire brazenly invokes its puffed-up elitism … the Tang Emperor has no need to trumpet the greatness of his domain, rather it simply is.”
Summoned to the capital Chang’an by Xuanzong (Leon Lai, “Forever Enthralled”) to orchestrate a Western elegy in a victory parade, Tacitus is impressed by the Emperor’s wish to honor the fallen on both sides (his respect for the war dead presumably absolving him of his expansionist military policies). At an outdoor performance reminiscent of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, lead dancer Yuhuan (Fan) catches the Emperor’s fancy, despite the massive gulf between them. Fearing his roving eye, royal consort Wu (Joan Chen, chewing the scenery like Lady Macbeth) lies that the dancer is already betrothed to her son, Prince Mao (Wu Chun, “My Kingdom,” unremarkable).
Yuhuan is hastily married off to Mao, but finds happiness with him, until a failed coup by other princes implicates Consort Wu and leads to her fall from grace. Yuhuan finds herself offered to Xuanzong as a trophy to enhance Mao’s chances of succession, thus making her resentful of her husband; Xuanzong sends her to a Taoist temple to be ordained as a nun so they can indulge in illicit trysts. The tug of war between the monarch’s assertive advances and Yuhuan’s pride and unsure affections should be a dramatic high point, but it fails to ignite much tension.
Despite the film’s draggy, long-winded discourse, relevant historical exposition is lacking as the protags’ tragic fates pan out. An Lushan’s rebellion erupts out of the blue, without supplying background on the dynasty’s decline — namely, Xuanzong’s trust of corrupt officials, state overspending and unrest among border minorities. The scale of the later battle scenes is measly in comparison with the earlier setpieces, and are shot as if no action choreographer was around.
Reprising her role some eight years later, Fan brings no new interpretation to Yuhuan, characterized in both versions as an innocent girl who just loves singing and dancing. The only difference is that, at 33, the thesp’s affectations of childish tantrums and willful passion appear less charming. Though Fan reportedly put on weight for the role, her pointed chin and slender build are nowhere near the legendary plumpness that the Imperial Concubine was hailed for.
Acting his age for a change, Lai does imbue Xuanzong with a stately manner, but he goes through the motions in the amorous scenes, as if this were just another contempo romance. Although Fan and Lai have partnered onscreen before (“One Night Surprise,” “The Matrimony”), there’s no frisson here, even with such outre gimmicks as equestrian erotica and a suggestively staged death by asphyxia.
Craft contributions, though flashy in scope, are technically below par, in particular coarse visual effects and clumsy editing. Lenser-helmer Hou Yong (“Jasmin Women”) takes his signature lustrous textures to lurid extremes while going crazy on sweeping panoramic shots. Although Zhang and Tian are also credited as production designers, the unchecked opulence of the sets (epitomized by Consort Wu’s overgrown knoll of flowers or the Colosseum-like polo field) are aberrations of their refined repertoire. Even world-class costume designer Emi Wada’s robes verge on obscene in ornamentation.