As the chrysanthemum festival approaches, trouble is brewing in the Chinese royal household as the Empress (Gong Li) plots revenge against her manipulative husband (Chow Yun Fat).
Zhang Yimou, director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, uses his serious film-making clout and cinematographic skill to dial each element of this film up to the maximum. The bare Imperial Palace of Qin-dynasty Hero becomes opulence beyond opulence a millennium later. Every scene is bathed in sumptuous colour like firecrackers for the eyeballs.
The Imperial Family aren’t the only ones who get to feast, as Fat and Li dig into the high-ocatane drama with gravitas and enthusiasm. The screenplay brings in operatic melodrama, with incest, abuse, plotting, scheming and vengeance. This is carefully balanced with the restraint and composure you’d expect of Chinese royals, so every emotional outburst has all the more impact.
The surprisingly bloody action is expertly handled, including a huge battle on the biggest set ever built in China at the time. It also had the biggest budget to that point, and it’s easy to see where the money went with the gorgeous surroundings, myriad extras and dazzling costumes. It’s bolstered by a superb score from Shigeru Umebayashi.
The result is a dazzing visual spectacle, an explosion of slick martial arts, a high-flying melodrama and an intimate portrait of a dysfunctional family, wrapped up in a technicolour silk throw.