11 January 2004 | BrianDanaCamp
LAST WOMAN OF SHANG - Sweeping historical drama of Old China
THE LAST WOMAN OF SHANG (1964) is notable for being one of the first Hong Kong films released in the U.S. in arthouse theaters outside of the Chinatown circuit. As part of an experiment by the Shaw Bros. studio's American distribution agent, San Francisco-based Frank Lee, it was actually the first such film shown in a New York arthouse theater (the 55th Street Playhouse) and was reviewed by both The New York Times and Variety. It is now available in a restored edition on a remastered DVD, letter-boxed and subtitled. However, this DVD offers a 103-minute edition and not the original release print which was listed variously as 108 and 147 min., depending on the source (New York Times and Variety, respectively).
It's an elaborate costume drama, with massive sets, a large cast, and a sweeping, tragic storyline of court intrigue, corruption, betrayal and revenge. The plot essentially follows the efforts of Su Tanji (Linda Lin Dai) to wreak vengeance on Emperor Zhou (Shin Yung-kyoon), the last ruler of the Shang Dynasty, after he's killed her father following a false accusation from one of his ministers. At the urging of her maid, Zhiyan (Pat Ting Hung), Tanji works her way up in the Emperor's favor, eventually becoming his queen. She embarks on a program to ruin him by making outrageous demands that the Emperor, grateful for her new-found affection, grants, to the detriment of the nation's treasury and the well-being of the people. Eventually, the nobleman whom Tanji really loves, Ji Fa (Nan Kong Yuan), is compelled by the Emperor's mis-rule to rally opposition and form a rebel army.
We lose some sympathy for Tanji when her quest for revenge creates great hardship for the ordinary people and makes her, rather than the Emperor, a target of their wrath. At some point, we lose sight of Tanji's aims and goals and wonder what exactly she and her crafty maid, Zhiyan, are hoping to accomplish. When the Emperor builds "the Star-Plucking Tower," a high tower designed to satisfy Tanji's wish to touch the stars, it nearly bankrupts the nation. We only see one scene of the construction of the Tower, and hardly see it at all after it's completed, even though its construction is a pivotal event in the film. Ji Fa, as the nominal male hero, is hardly seen in the film and his efforts to rally the people should have been given more play to engage the audience's emotions in the action a bit more.
There are massive battle scenes late in the film that look different from everything else because they were shot by a second unit in Korea. The score is by Japanese composer Akira Ifukube and his music should sound very familiar to fans of the early GODZILLA films. Lin Dai leads the court's dancing girls in one song and dance number. The film was shot sync-sound in the Mandarin language.
Despite its flaws, THE LAST WOMAN OF SHANG is a spectacular film and well worth watching for fans of Hong Kong's lavish costume dramas. The lead actress, Lin Dai, is quite intense and always compelling, and added poignance comes from the knowledge that she committed suicide just prior to the film's release. (Films of hers continued to be released for another three years, including the two-part wartime drama, THE BLUE AND THE BLACK in 1966.)