24 January 2010 | BrianDanaCamp
EMPRESS WU – Turbulent life in court with a 7th Century Empress
EMPRESS WU (1963) is a 112-minute drama from Hong Kong's Shaw Bros. studio about a seventh-century Empress, "the only woman in the history of China to assume the title of Empress Regnant," according to Wikipedia. It's quite a spectacular production, shot on a series of exquisitely designed sets and boasting a dazzling array of costumes, all beautifully photographed in color and widescreen. Li-Li Hua (THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE, BOXER REBELLION), one of Hong Kong's greatest film stars, plays the title role and dominates the film just as her character dominates the court in the span of decades covered by the story. The film doesn't soften the character's ruthlessness or her harsh punishment of enemies, even when they're her own sons. But at the same time it shows the fairness with which she treats some of those who oppose her and the respect she shows the ones who speak their minds honestly and thoughtfully to her. It's never clear exactly whether she's meant to be seen as a heroine or a villain and I'm guessing the film's intent was to suggest that she could be both.
There's a feminist slant revealed in the thinking of Wu Zhao, the Empress, in such scenes as when she turns down a petition to punish nuns who reportedly seduced young men, and grants nuns the rights to the same human feelings as anyone else. She puts her emphasis on statecraft and providing for the populace and repeatedly rejects the notion that a woman can't head the ship of state, despite grumbling by many of her ministers. More importantly, there's a secondary character, Wan Er, a girl at court who is the daughter and granddaughter of men who were executed as traitors and is party to a conspiracy against the Empress until Wu Zhao questions her at length after reading a poem the girl wrote. Impressed with her intellect, her forthrightness, and ability to rethink her positions, the Empress appoints Wan Er to be her chief aide and before too long, Wan Er is dressed in full scholar's garb and remains at the Empress' side until the bitter end. I don't believe I've ever seen any Shaw Bros. historical drama that featured women in such positions. The actress who plays Wan Er, Grace Ting Ning, has striking features and is very good in the role.
There's an extended battle sequence late in the film, as the army loyal to the Empress suppresses a rebellion by an opposing faction. I must confess I was never quite sure which side was which, since none of the actors in the battle scene appear anywhere else in the film. (Since Fukui, Japan is listed as a filming location by IMDb, and since the only extended location sequence is the battle scene, I suspect that the battle was shot by a second unit in Japan with none of the principal HK actors.) Further confusion ensues when numerous characters are referred to in the subtitles even though we haven't seen them or, if we have, were never adequately identified for us. Also, some of the subtitle translations seem to oversimplify, or simply garble, some of the complex arguments put forth by some of the characters, particularly the Empress. I understand that a lot of the history covered by this epic condensation is well-known to Chinese viewers and didn't really need to be spelled out for the audience. Unfortunately, this leaves non-Chinese viewers at a distinct disadvantage at some points along the way.
Still, I found it a thoroughly compelling historical drama, beautifully mounted in all departments and powerfully acted by a top-drawer Shaw Bros. cast. It certainly ranks with THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE, also reviewed on this site, as one of the best films of its type. While the IMDb date given here is 1963, the year on the Celestial DVD case is 1960. HKMDB also gives a Hong Kong release date of 1963, so I'll defer to those two sources.