Richly cinematic and more tasteful than the average mainland Chinese period costumer,”The Palace” is as exquisitely wrought as a cloisonne vase, but beneath the surface craftsmanship lies a timeworn Cinderella story entrenched in conservative attitudes toward women. Reliably helmed by Pan Anzi and floridly plotted by hit-making TV producer-scribe Yu Zheng, the Qing dynasty-set romance between a palace maid and a prince oscillates between drippy puppy love and bodice-ripping amour fou. The pic has swiftly conquered its targeted adolescent market at home, but audiences outside Chinese-speaking territories may find the package too formulaic.
“The Palace” has collected more than $7.5 million in its first week of domestic release, having been marketed as the offshoot of Yu’s top-rated TV dramas “Palace: The Locked Heart Jade” (2011) and “Palace: The Locked Beaded Curtain” (2012). As the film’s producer, Yu has marshaled a first-rate Hong Kong crew that handles the technical aspects with flair, while visual effects supervised by Rhythm & Hues’ Josh Cole (“Red Cliff,” “Night at the Museum 2”) add an air of fairy-tale enchantment.
Yet despite Yu’s reputation as an expert on Qing Dynasty court sagas, his screenplay interweaves romance, eroticism and royal intrigue without generating much suspense or surprise. By discarding the time-travel elements that made the original TV series playful and refreshing, the material becomes all the more generic in its re-creation of an archaic world where women lie, steal and beg to win men’s fickle favors.
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The film is most gripping in its first act, which depicts a tough rite of passage for Chenxiang (Zhang Zifeng), daughter of a minor Manchurian official. At 13, she is recruited to serve as a palace maid at the court of Emperor Kangxi (Winston Chao, “The Wedding Banquet”). Out of scores of hopefuls, she is hand-picked by the chief eunuch (Dickie Cheung), not for her looks, but for her ability to withstand pain — a quality that comes in handy in her later career. Chenxiang is bullied the moment she enters the dorm, but fortunately, the prettier, craftier Liuli (Jiang Yiyi) comes to her aid and becomes her bosom friend. A few brief but chilling scenes describing the fates of over-ambitious palace maids and out-of-favor concubines suggest the cutthroat nature of this imperial harem.
Seven years later, the girls have bloomed into nubile maidens on the lookout for any chance to catch a prince’s roving eye. Liuli (now played by Zhao Liying) sweet-talks Chenxiang (Zhou Dongyu, “Under the Hawthorn Tree”) into joining her on the night shift. While Liuli is busy waylaying Prince Yintang (Zhu Zixiao) and literally thrusting herself upon him, Chenxiang stumbles into a sequestered garden just as Prince Yinxiang (Chen Xiao) saunters in. Chenxiang’s gift for summoning butterflies sets his heart aflutter, as it reminds him of his late mother, Concubine Min (Eva Huang).
Smitten with Chenxiang after their hasty encounter, Yinxiang enlists Concubine De (Vivian Hsu, “The Pillow Book”) to be his matchmaker, but there’s a minor glitch: He doesn’t know what she looks like, as she was wearing a scarf over her face. Cinderella had it easy compared with Chenxiang, who has to jump through so many hoops before Yinxiang recognizes her that it soon becomes exasperating to watch. While Yinxiang’s effusive desire to please his dream girl feels like the stuff of teen fantasy, what’s even harder to swallow is how Chenxiang silently suffers and makes ridiculous sacrifices; her innocence and docility are contrasted with Liuli’s powerful libido and conniving behavior in an old-fashioned virgin/whore dichotomy.
Zhou holds the screen very well, turning an initially daft personality into an angsty but stoical heroine. TV thesps Chen, Zhao and Zhu acquit themselves adequately, but none of them attempt to bring any additional layers to their stock characters . By contrast, established thesps like Chao and Hsu exude an air of respectability in memorable supporting roles.
Production values are exceptionally high, notable in the magnificent mise-en-scene with its hints of danger and mystique, as the thesps, costumed in exquisitely embroidered finery by Bobo Ng, tiptoe around luxuriant chambers designed by Lau Sai-wan. Tsou Lin-yau’s luminous lensing has a velvety texture, while scene transitions are silky-smooth under Cheung Ka-fai precise cutting. Composer Peter Kam eschews his usual thundering beats for a sweet, tuneful score.