10 May 2015 | BrianDanaCamp
Restrained biopic of Yoshiko Kawashima, Chinese princess-turned-Japanese spy
I came to the film KAWASHIMA YOSHIKO (1990) after reading about the actual person in a 2008 novel by Ian Buruma called "The China Lover" and reading a review of a new biography of Kawashima entitled, "Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army," by Phyllis Birnbaum. I was somewhat disappointed in this movie because of the distance it keeps from its central character, who was a member of the Manchu royal family and a cousin of Pu Yi, the famous "Last Emperor." The narrative touches down briefly on highlights of Kawashima's life from childhood in 1913 and her youth in Japan and throughout the turmoil in China in the 1920s and the war with Japan in the 1930s, right up to her postwar trial and sentencing in 1948, but it offers little in the way of social and political context that would allow western viewers to understand this complicated woman and the turbulent times she lived in. I first watched the movie before reading Birnbaum's book, so I felt at a loss in some scenes. Re-watching the movie after reading the book certainly helped a great deal. But there's still a lot missing here and I wish there'd been a director in charge who was more passionate about the material. The script by Lillian Lee (based on her novel) has several good scenes, although it compresses and conflates characters and events and omits a lot and also creates an unlikely central romance for Kawashima.
I initially thought Anita Mui looked quite out of place in those ill-fitting military uniforms, but it turns out that her look actually resembles the real Kawashima's appearance in uniform, judging from the pictures provided in Birnbaum's book. Granted, Mui is very good at capturing Kawashima's essential vulnerability and I wish they'd given her more scenes where she got to convey that and open up to the audience more. She's very good in the few dramatic scenes she has, including her debate with a Chinese revolutionary, her retorts to the court during her postwar trial and her breakdown in her prison cell. I just wish more had been made of these scenes. They seem curiously abrupt. Still, the film never quite captures the mercurial personality of the real woman and the true extent of her gender-bending, at least as conveyed in first-person accounts in Birnbaum's book and its photos of Kawashima.
There is an attempt to give Kawashima a romantic through-line with the recurring character of Ah Fook, aka Cloud, a Chinese opera performer played by Hong Kong star Andy Lau. Ah Fook is intimately connected with Chinese student radicals and participates in various anti-Japanese revolutionary activities. Kawashima, who actively opposed anti-Japanese guerrillas, only seems drawn to Fook because he bravely rescued her purse from a band of thieves in an early scene set in Shanghai. He hates her pro-Japanese stance but succumbs to her charms at various points. At some point there is a debate between them about the moral implications of her behavior, which led to her trial for treason after the war, and she actually delivers a stirring defense of her positions. (Alas, the film only hints at the extent of Japanese atrocities in China during the war.) Given Kawashima's tendency to associate exclusively with powerful men, I doubt that a relationship with a man like Ah Fook ever existed and I suspect it was created for the film to somewhat humanize Kawashima by giving at least a hint of a sincere romantic alliance. (To be fair, Birnbaum's book does mention that Kawashima befriended her favorite Chinese Opera performers in Shanghai.) The relationship with Ah Fook tends to shift the balance away from the more important relationships in her life, including that with her discarded first love, Masahiko Amakasu (Derek Yee), a Japanese officer who, in real life, headed the Manchukuo Film Association and supervised the production of Japanese wartime propaganda films, and Commander Tanaka, a high-ranking officer in the Kwantung Army who was Kawashima's protector and "godfather." Curiously, Amakasu is hardly mentioned in Birnbaum's book and it's not clear if he ever met Kawashima. (He's a major character in Buruma's novel and he appears with Kawashima in scenes in Bernardo Bertolucci's THE LAST EMPEROR.) In fact, he's used here as a stand-in for Toru Yamaga, a Japanese army officer stationed in China who, in Birnbaum's book, was Kawashima's first love and was ultimately treated by her the way Amakasu is here. I'm not sure why the screenwriter chose to substitute Amakasu for Yamaga. On the other hand, although the relationship with Tanaka is lightly touched on, it is treated accurately.
Hopefully, another, better film can be made from the life of this extraordinary figure and the controversy she created wherever she went, perhaps using Birnbaum's book as a source. Also, for a film about a collision of cultures, the decision to cast Chinese actors in all the Japanese roles and do the entire soundtrack in Cantonese, even in scenes where Japanese would surely be spoken, tends to offset the historical authenticity which the filmmakers made such an impressive effort to achieve in other aspects of the production, including sets, locations, costumes, props, period soundtrack songs, and dress extras. When Hollywood committed a similar casting offense in 2005 with MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, there was quite a backlash. (For the record, the Fortune Star DVD edition of this film also includes a Mandarin track.)
Kawashima is also a character in LADY KARATE (aka SPY RING AT KOKURYUKAI, 1976), the aforementioned THE LAST EMPEROR (1987), and the Hong Kong action film, THE RAID (1991), which was co-directed by Tsui Hark. I've reviewed LADY KARATE and THE RAID on IMDb and I recently re-watched THE LAST EMPEROR. Despite my criticisms, the Anita Mui film offers the most in-depth (and accurate) cinematic depiction of Kawashima Yoshiko so far.