The Great Conqueror's Concubine
1994, NR, 165 min. Directed by Stephen Shin. Starring Sung Young Chen, Gong Li, Rosamund Kwan, Shun Lau.
REVIEWED By Joey O'Bryan, Fri., Dec. 2, 1994
This sweeping historical epic, clocking in at a whopping two hours and forty-five minutes, is one of the more eagerly awaited Hong Kong pictures of the year. The film boasts the unlikely collaboration between the arthouse fave Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou), who functions here as producer, and the more or less uncelebrated action director Stephen Shin, whose only well-known feature is The Black Cat, an unofficial Hong Kong remake of La Femme Nikita. Star power helps drive the picture: Ray Lui (To Be Number One) and Rosemund Kwan (Once Upon a Time in China) star as supporters of the Chu dynasty at war with Farewell My Concubine alumni Zhang Feng Yi and Gong Li, who represent the Han dynasty and want to overthrow the current government. Played out against gargantuan action sequences realistically depicting battles between armies with seas of horses, swords, catapults, and spears, The Great Conqueror's Concubine is a genuine epic in the tradition of the Hollywood of old, full of melodrama, romance, war, and breathtaking CinemaScope landscapes. The most expensive movie in Chinese film history ($17 million -- a paltry sum by American standards), it's also something of a cinematic event for world cinema. Can it live up to the hype? Well, yes and no. For the most part, the picture delivers what it promises, with excellent performances from the entire cast and beautiful wide-screen cinematography. Unfortunately, the scope of the picture is so vast that viewers may slowly find themselves lost in its huge tapestry of history, double-crosses, and incidental characters, serving to lessen the emotional involvement and heighten the confusion. Nevertheless, a project this ambitious couldn't possibly succeed on every level. And, while there is much to admire in The Great Conqueror's Concubine, it is not exactly the best choice for a midnight movie. Yet it is certainly worth a look for night owls who can manage a three-hour historical drama at 12:30 at night. You know who you are.