(Mandarin Chinese dialogue)
“The Great Conqueror’s Concubine” is a rich, 10-course banquet of Chinese historical drama that harks back to the pre-arthouse age of East Asian moviemaking. Good-looking, big-budget ($ 7 million) production should certainly attract specialized Western interest on the strength of its name players (Gong Li, Zhang Fengyi) and behind-camera talent (Zhang Yimou as exec producer), though trimming would be in order for wider distribution.
Initial three-hour version world-preemed in the Cannes market hot from the labs. Producers are considering a 2 1/2-hour cut for Hong Kong release this summer but plan to keep the full version intact as well. Programmers for fests should take a chance on the latter.
In line with the trend toward cross-border Chinese-lingo production, the movie has been tubthumped in the East for its mixed-territory casting, with players from mainland China (Gong, Zhang), Hong Kong (Rosamund Kwan, Ray Lui) and Taiwan (Wu Hsing-kuo, Chen Sung-yung). Helmer, experienced H.K. director/producer Stephen Shin, shot pic on remote mainland locations during four to five months last winter.
True story, a watershed in Chinese history, is set in the late third century B.C., when the country, united under the Qin (Chin) dynasty, was riven by warring factions. Pic focuses on one of the biggest rebellions that led to the formation of Chu State, later threatened by a rival faction led by the king of Han.
Picture divides cleanly into two halves, with the first a series of battles for supremacy between Qin and Chu forces, and the second more focused on personal rivalries as Chu leaders feud for territorial control.
Script, developed from a “literary screenplay” by well-known mainland writer Liu Heng (“Ju Dou,” “The Story of Qiu Ju”), does a good job in simplifying some seven years of tangled events, with explanatory captions peppered through the first half to fill in the gaps. This part could be further simplified for Western auds, though by keeping the dramatic focus on a relatively small number of players, the general thrust is clear enough.
Nut of the story has ruthless schemer Lu Zhi (Gong) and her ambitious husband , Liu Bang (Zhang), joining the Xiang clan, led by Xiang Yu (Ray Lui), in its rebellion against the Qin dynasty but plotting a long-term takeover of power once the initial battle is won.
Second half pits the treacherous couple against Xiang, who’s trying to be fair to his enemies in the cause of pan-Chinese peace. Xiang is inspired by the goodly love of Yu Ji (Kwan), who’s also been inveigled into a sisterly friendship by Lu.
Helmer Shin, who made his name in the ’80s with a string of slick yuppie comedies and more recently directed “Black Cat,” a clone of “La Femme Nikita,” seems deliberately to evoke the ’60s style of Hong Kong/Taiwan costumers with full-throttle direction, a name cast and traditional heroic acting styles. For audiences prepared to go with the flow, the meld works, with plenty of large-scale set pieces, milling extras drawn from China’s liberation army and frequently awesome production design.
Gong, who’s so far generally fared less well in H.K. movies than in artier fare for mainland director Zhang Yimou, here presses major buttons as the beautiful schemer Lu. Despite lusty perfs by males Ray Lui and Zhang Fengyi as the two antagonists, it’s still Gong’s movie. (She even sings the closing song.) H.K. actress Kwan is fine as the saintly Yu, but it’s a less peachy part.
Widescreen lensing squeezes top visual value from the budget, and production designer Mok Kwan-kit’s rich costumes deserve a special nod. Color throughout accentuates reds and yellows, in line with the key hues of the warring Chu and Han factions in the latter half. Pic’s Chinese title translates as “The Lord of Western Chu,” referring to Ray Lui’s tragic character.