27 August 2008 | BrianDanaCamp
BEYOND THE GREAT WALL Lavish Shaw Bros. costume drama, with music
BEYOND THE GREAT WALL (1959, the date given on the DVD case) is another Shaw Bros. Huangmei opera film, mixing dialogue and singing, set in old China, in this case the Han Dynasty, and stars Linda Lin Dai, the Hong Kong diva who specialized in this genre (DIAU CHARN, THE KINGDOM AND THE BEAUTY, THE LAST WOMAN OF SHANG). Here Lin Dai plays Wang Zhaojun, a concubine who is ignored by the Emperor because an unfavorable portrait of her had been submitted by the corrupt court portrait painter after she'd refused to pay the painter a bribe. When the Emperor chances upon her playing a melancholy tune on her pipa (a stringed instrument), he is enchanted with her and wants to know why she'd never been brought to his attention in the three years she's been there. When he learns what the court painter was up to, he erupts in rage. The painter, Mao Yanshuo, alerted by his accomplice, the Emperor's court secretary, flees for his life and heads out over the plains to the camp of the neighboring Huns, whose leader, Huhanxie Khan, had once taken notice of Zhaojun during a diplomatic visit to court. To save his neck from the Huns, Mao insists he's been sent by the Emperor to arrange a marriage between Khan and Zhaojun. When Khan sends a party with bridal gifts to the Emperor's court, the Emperor is outraged at the thought of giving up Zhaojun and vows to punish Mao's treachery. Insulted at the return of the gifts, the Huns begin a campaign of war against the Hans and attack and pillage at least one town. Back at court, Zhaojun has to weigh her personal happiness against the future of her country and makes a momentous decision.
There's not much more to the story beyond that, other than a powerful ending that I won't even hint at. The film's 89-minute running time is padded out with scenes of ritual, performance, sad farewells, and lots and lots of Huangmei opera singing. Which is fine with me. The film is quite an extraordinarily beautiful work, filled with elaborate sets, stunning costumes, bright colors and a lush score of music and choral singing that's always a pleasure to listen to. It's more of a pageant than an epic. While it's never as emotionally involving as some of the other films in this genre, including three that I've reviewed on this siteDIAU CHARN, THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE, and THE LAST WOMAN OF SHANGit's still something to behold. And the Region 3 DVD from Celestial/IVL is quite sharp, one of the best-looking of the older Shaw Bros. films that I've seen among the restored releases, on a par with THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE.