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January 02, 2009

Princess Yang Kwei-Fei

Princess Yang Kwi-Fei.jpg

Kenji Mizoguchi - 1955
Films sans Frontieres Region 2 DVD

I first saw Princess Yang Kwei-Fei in a 16mm print at NYU, roughly a year before I became a Buddhist. While the story is not specifically Buddhist, it is mentioned in one of the writings of the Buddhist priest, Nichiren. As this letter, known as the "New Year's Gosho" is read at every meeting held on New Year's Day, when Yang Kwei-Fei is mentioned, I always think back to Kenji Mizoguchi's film.

Nichiren's reference to Yang is part of his explanation of the innate Buddhism of all people. One can further read this as simply the potential for greatness or value of people or things from humble or ordinary sources. Where one could give a Buddhist interpretation to Mizoguchi's films is in his exploration of the lives of women of lower social status, demonstrating their worthiness both as the protagonists of his films, and in their relationships with other people, especially those deemed more respect worthy due to social ranking. Mizoguchi's version of the story of Yang has been reworked so that it reflects those interests of the filmmaker. A deeper scholarship regarding Mizoguchi's thoughts on retelling the story of Princess Yang would be desirable based also on the fact that Mizoguchi was a convert to a form of Nichiren Buddhism, and was probably familiar with the "New Year's Gosho". What writing there is, at least in English, regarding Mizoguchi and Buddhism, suggests a need for more than passing acknowledgement. What is known is that producer Masaichi Nagata was also a Nichiren Buddhist practitioner, and played in a key role in Mizoguchi's conversion. Mizoguchi's own interest could be based not only on retelling a classic story, but that his own life as one of an esteemed filmmaker of humble origin.

princess yang kwei-fei 2.jpg

I probably would have been better off to some extent getting the Masters of Cinema DVD because the supplemental material is in English. Still, the English subtitles on this French DVD, as well as the movie itself, is an improvement over the New Yorker taped version. As revised by Mizoguchi, the story could almost describe some of his other films - a selfless woman acts on behalf of benefitting other family members, only to lose everything. Kwei-Fei allows herself to be introduced to the Emperor because it could enable her status conscious cousins to become part of the court. Wealth and position are presented as traps in two key scenes. Dressed as commoners, the emperor and Kwei-Fei walk the streets during a holiday, with Kwei-Fei introducing the emperor to street cuisine. Later that night, Kwei-Fei dances while the emperor joins the street musicians by playing the lute. In another scene, Kwei-Fei witness the emperor distressed that his edict regarding members of the court interfering with politics is understood to mean death for a court lady who had requested a position for a relative. In Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, power and position need to be coupled with humility. The Yang family, and those who attained position through their relationship with Kwei-Fei, are destroyed due to their insatiable greed. Kwei-Fei allows herself to be executed, the mutual love and loyalty with the emperor to great to allow her to leave the court in spite of her attempts to exile herself from the court. Even though Kwei-Fei has done nothing herself, her existence is viewed as the catalyst that created the chaos.

Because Princess Yang Kwei-Fei was a coproduction with Chinese producer Run Run Shaw, the film has some notable differences to other Mizoguchi films. This was the first of two films Mizoguchi shot in color. Also, there are crowd scenes, teeming with extras, such as the previously mentioned street festival scene and a later scene with the emperor's army. What stands out, as in other films by Mizoguchi are the more intimate moments, Machiko Kyo as Kwei-Fei taking a bath, or observing a young girl, a palace cook, who reminds her of herself prior to meeting the emperor, or the scene with Masayuki Mori as the emperor discovering a shadowed Kyo, or plaintively looking up the statue of his late wife.

Bosley Crowther's 1956 review in the New York Times, described the film as " . . . a beautiful thing to look at but a bewildering and tedious thing to sit through." Even now, there are critics, such as Tony Rayns (who also introduces the film on the MofC DVD), who are generally dismissive of Princess Yang Kwe-Fei. Run Run Shaw did a new version of the story under the title, Yang Kwei Fei, in 1962, with the English language title of The Magnificent Concubine. For myself, I had first seen the film with little previous knowledge of Mizoguchi, having only seen Sansho the Bailiff. While repeated viewings have been initiated in large part because of the significants of the story, what I have since learned about Mizoguchi's conversion to Buddhism indicates, at least for me, some greater research.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 2, 2009 12:21 AM