One of Chinese’ history’s most common tropes is the tale of a beautiful, tragic woman who brings about the downfall of heroic men and great empires. None are more romanticized than Concubine Yang Guifei, for whom one of the most famous (and long) epic poems in Chinese literature, Song of Everlasting Regret, was dedicated.
Naturally then, Fan Bingbing was chosen to play Concubine Yang (after her great performance in The Palace) in Lady of the Dynasty (王朝女人). After a troubled start that saw the loss of the ensemble cast including Leehom Wang as Li Bai, directors Shi Qing and Zhang Yimou collaborated to bring a much-dramatized edition of the classical Chinese tale. The film is fairly true to whatever little historical records exist — the daughter of a small noble family, Concubine Yang was first wed to the eighteenth prince of the Tang dynasty under Emperor Xuanzong, only to have the Emperor steal his son’s wife for himself. Thereafter, the Emperor neglected his affairs of state only for the Concubine’s distant relation An Lushan to begin a rebellion; the Emperor’s soldiers eventually mutinied and forced him to strangle his most beloved Concubine.
The story of Concubine Yang is indeed tragic — yet, Director Shi Qing’s rendition may be even more tragic than the original story. To begin, the entire tale is narrated by a mysterious Byzantine Empire envoy speaking in English, which is a rather unconventional way to tell the story of a Chinese classic. Certainly, the English narration must have confused many a Chinese moviegoer as well. Unresolved plot points also plague the film — while historically it was true that Concubine Yang was Emperor Xuanzong’s daughter-in-law (married to Prince Li Mao), the film chooses to dedicate an immense period of time to their love story only to jerk away to the Emperor forcibly taking his son’s wife. Somehow, Concubine Yang’s pleas to not part with her beloved husband are transformed overnight into a deep love and adoration for her new husband — suggesting that either Concubine Yang had a stone-cold heart or the movie has poor screenwriting.
The redeeming point of the film then has to be the stunning cinematography, however. With colorful silks all around and stunning visuals of the Tang palaces, cinematographer Hou Yong deserves more accolades than the rest of those involved in the film’s creation. Unsurprisingly, Yong was a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy and a classmate of Zhang Yimou (whose rich cinematography elevated him to be the creative director for the 2008 Olympics opening ceremonies). The Tang dynasty was indeed a time of splendor and opulence for the Chinese people, a fact alluded to by the many Chinatowns who refer to themselves as 唐人街 (Tang people road).
The epic of Concubine Yang has much potential for an emotionally powerful drama that evokes deep sympathy for the tragedy of two star-crossed lovers in China — after all, the common characterization of Concubine Yang and Emperor Xuanzong is to describe them as “two birds flying wing to wing, and two branches of a tree tied together.” However, the potential was lost in a sea of poor screenwriting and the lackluster cast that appeared to be hastily put together after the original A-list ensemble for the film fell apart (with the exception of our beloved Fan Bingbing). Ultimately, Lady of the Dynasty left me as sad about its poor execution as the Song of Everlasting Regret was lamentful about Emperor Xuanzong and Concubine Yang. Woe is me, but I can comfort myself by watching Fan Bingbing perform the song and dance of rainbow and features.
Lady of the Dynasty (王朝女人) — China. Directed by Shi Qing. First release July 2015. Running time 1hr 57min. Starring Fan Bingbing, Leon Lai, and Wu Chun.
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