Empress Wu Zetian ★★½

The oldest Chinese-langauge film I've seen. It's not without interest, but certainly is nowhere near as technically polished as American, Japanese or French film was in 1939, though this may be more a matter of the poor state of the source print (at one point the film actually goes out of frame for a few seconds, on the DVD!) than the Shanghai film industry. The period costumes and sets are certainly quite lavish. And the performances are pretty big too.

The film tells the story of Empress Wu, the Tang Dynasty monarch who hold stye distinction of being the first and only woman to hold supreme power in China in her own name, rather than through a man. She is generally reviled by history, though of course it was the highly patriarchal Confucian historians doing the reviling. She's a major figure in Tsui Hark's Detective Dee films, where she's portrayed with nuance by Carina Lau. Little of that nuance is to be found here.

The first half is an episodic telling of Wu's rise to power, as she manipulates the emperor (a fat hedonist who complains of a headache every time he has to make a difficult decision), into raising her status by repeatedly framing the women ahead of her in the concubinal rankings, all the way up to the official empress itself. This sequence plays a bit like a Tang Dynasty variation on Baby Face, but if Barbara Stanwyck would give an evil side-eye at the end of every scene.

Then somewhere along the way, the film seems to lose interest. Wu becomes Empress, and after the Emperor dies, she takes power. It's not explained exactly how she accomplishes this, which would seem to be important. Wu institutes some proto-feminist laws, but we don't get much discussion of those or their impact. Instead the 90 minute film finds time for a lengthy musical performance, as Wu relaxes on the throne. The song is neat, and it's subtitled in Chinese: the idea was to get the audience to sing along, karaoke style. There was apparently a whole genre of musical designed this way. After this, the movie just kind of peters out. Empress Wu dies. We saw her do some stuff, but we never got to know her.

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