Zhang Yimou is desperate. Desperate for that elusive Oscar. In his third attempt to lift that statuette, he has stuck to the martial arts genre, still deciding to go headlong since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon's (CTHD) win. For his previous attempts, he has utilized CTHD star Ziyi Zhang in both Hero and House of Flying Daggers (HFD), and had resorted to casting big Asian stars like Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, all of whom are known actors to the West, and the likes of Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Here, he dug deeper, and went to snag CTHD star, and another recognizable face Chow Yun-Fat, as well as ditching Ziyi Zhang for his original muse, Gong Li, in roles fit for royalty.
Well actually, they are royalty in this Shakespearean inspired tragedy. Or should I call it comedy. The family of Chow as Emperor, Gong as Empress, and royal princes played by Jay Chou, Qin Junjie and Liu Ye, are as dysfunctional as can be. They scheme, they plot, they fight, they switch loyalties, they have deep dark secrets and huge skeletons in their closets. They have complex relationship problems of the paternal, maternal, brotherly, and you can probably name every issue from incest to heterosexual sex, they're all in it. These folks know how to love, but for all the wrong reasons, and in all the wrong ways.
Someone should remind Zhang Yimou that story is key. Seducing audiences with costumes that show twin peaks, peekaboo moments, and having grand sets and massive foot soldiers running around, just can't cover up the lack of a strong story, and it lapsed into convenience of wrapping it up ala HFD with nonsensical, implausible (maybe it's possible but I doubt) plot elements. If you thought having HFD's extremely quick transition of the seasons bad, wait till you get a load of this, and its loopholes (like one dealing with travelling time) stuck out like a sore thumb.
If you're expecting cool martial arts swordsplay, then I'm sorry, look elsewhere. The fights are few and far between, and nothing spectacular. Other than relying heavily on CG trickery, the fights are short of exciting, save for the first showdown at the beginning of the movie. It all went downhill after that, except for one scene where a funky weapon was wielded by one character. It brought back the memories of old Shaw Brothers martial arts flick where combatants wield the most interesting weapons like clubs and rakes, but this one takes the cake! True to the theme, it's in gold too!
Despite its convoluted plot, which credit though, makes itself clear as the movie progressed, the actors are probably sleepwalking through their roles. Chow had little to do except be nasty (and surprisingly, little screen time!), Gong had to break out in sweat from her tight tube top, Jay looked extremely lost, while Liu Ye who played the Crown Prince, was portrayed as one horny bastard. The sets, while beautiful at first, gets tiresome after a while, especially the psychedelic palace decor which really will get to your nerves.
This is truly a wannabe Banquet gone stale, and one wonders how much those gold plated stuff, if they're real, could have fetched on the market to make up for lost box office revenue once word gets out that it leaves a bad aftertaste. If there's any consolation, at least it's better than Chen Kaige's The Promise, and there's a scene here which is finger lickin' good!