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January 04, 2011

The Magnificent Concubine

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Yang Kwei Fei
Li Han-Hsiang - 1960
IVL Region 3 DVD

I had written about Kenji Mizoguchi's Yang Kwei Fei two years ago, and decided to see this other version. Mizoguchi's version is the one that is best known nowadays, but it was also a commercial failure at the time of its release. Li Han-Hsiang never had the international prestige of Mizoguchi, but he knew how to make box office hits, and the Hong Kong audience that didn't care to see Japanese actors in a legendary Chinese story flocked to see this new version from the Shaw Brothers. While some parts of the story are the same, the differences are quite striking.

Unlike Mizoguchi's film which depicts Lady Yang's humble origin, and unexpected rise in the royal household, Li jumps in when Yang is firmly entrenched, with all of the power and privilege of royalty. Mizoguchi's Yang is demure, finding herself compromised by people and circumstances beyond her control, while Li's Yang is assumed to have manipulated the emperor into giving her brother the position of Prime Minister. Not only is Yang, played by Li Li-Hua, the most beautiful woman in China, she knows it, and she doesn't shy from letting others no it as well. At a time when the emperor seems to have his eye on another woman, Lady Yang tosses several vases, the classic scorned woman. The emperor and Lady Yang kiss and make up, with the second half of the film presenting a more sympathetic woman who really does have the interests of the emperor and the Chinese people at heart.

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Does anybody know if Joe Mankiewicz was at the Cannes film festival in 1962, where The Magnificent Concubine was presented? Or maybe someone who had something to do with the making of Cleopatra caught the film? The scene the introduces Lady Yang, and the actress Li Li-Hua, strongly resembles the bath scene in Mankiewicz's film. While it is only fleetingly glimpsed, there is more nudity in the older film as the camera pans past Li Li-Hua reclining by the pool. What struck me is that had I not known that The Magnificent Concubing had been filmed first, I would have thought that in her screen demeanor that Li Li-Hua was channelling Elizabeth Taylor.

Li Han-Hsiang was one of the top directors at the Shaw Brothers studios, and this film looks almost as good as a Hollywood feature of the time. Unlike Mizoguchi's film which emphasized the tragedy, Li seems more interested in the spectacle, with beautiful costumes, some gorgeous outdoor photography at the beginning of the film, and hundreds of extras. Even with the short running time of less than 75 minutes, Li takes a break to have a performance by a dozen or so acrobatic swordsmen followed by a troupe of female dancers. It may be the sumptuous visuals that persuaded the Cannes jury to award Li with a technical prize at Cannes.

There are some extras which make the DVD more valuable to either scholars of Hong Kong cinema, or Chinese culture. A featurette of Li Han-Hsiang discusses his background in art, and shows clips from several films. Several people who have worked on his films, primarily actors, discuss Li and their experiences with him. The featurette is subtitled except for the naming of the people talking about Li, putting those with less familiarity with some of the actors in a disadvantage. There is also some footage of Li, who dies in 1996, discussing his work. Unexpected and totally delightful, at least for me, was the inclusion of excerpts from three poems inspired by Yang Kwei Fei, including brief explanations. There is also a series of paintings and drawings, along with some historical explanation regarding the clothing worn during the T'ang Dynasty in 9th Century China. One might quibble about the facts as presented in either Li's or Mizoguchi's films. But to dismiss Li's film because he lacks the critical standing of Mizoguchi would be a mistake. While there is little discussion of Li in English, David Bordwell has some observation of interest. If there is room to embrace multiple versions of the stories of Joan of Arc or Billy the Kid, among others, than greater critical evaluation is due this other version of a woman who almost caused the fall of an empire.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 4, 2011 08:12 AM