One of the great Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi's last films, and the first of only two he made in color, PRINCESS YANG KWEI FEI is a sumptuous love story based on an 8th-Century Chinese legend. Billed as the first Sino-Japanese co-production, it was filmed in Hong Kong under the
auspices of the Shaw Brothers (who would later make their fortune with Bruce Lee kung-fu movies), effectively combining their style of historical spectacle with Mizoguchi's abiding themes of female victimization and romantic tragedy.
The old and lonely former Emperor Huan Tsung (Masayuki Mori) looks at a statue of a woman and tells her how much he misses her. A flashback takes us to the end of the Tang Dynasty, where Tsung is grieving over the death of his wife. To advance their careers and console the emperor, a group of
courtiers present three sisters from the Yang family, but the emperor rejects them all. An ambitious general named An Lu-shan (So Yamamura) discovers the Yangs' step-sister, a beautiful but lowly scullery maid named Yu-huan (Machiko Kyo), who looks like the emperor's late wife. Lu-shan cleans her
up and presents her to the emperor in the hope of getting a top cabinet post. The emperor is struck by the resemblance between her and his late wife, but rejects her too. However, she picks up his lute and plays a song she heard him compose, then tells him that she is an unwilling puppet for
others and wishes she could find a commoner as sweet as he. Charmed by her honesty, the emperor asks her to stay with him, and they eventually fall in love.
After becoming his concubine, Yu-huan is renamed Kwei Fei. Lu-shan, now a governor, tells her he's not happy with his promotion and demands she get him a better position. Meanwhile, the citizens are starting to rebel against the abuse by Kwei Fei's cousin and the Yang sisters, who are using their
new power to line their own pockets. Kwei Fei tells the emperor that she doesn't want to be the cause of any more trouble and wishes to return to her former simple life. He angrily banishes her to his harem, but she goes to her cousin's instead.
Lu-shan then organizes his troops and begins a battle with the emperor's soldiers. Kwei Fei returns to be with the emperor, but the palace guards execute the Yang sisters to appease Lu-shan, then demand that the emperor also give up Kwei Fei. He refuses, but she decides to sacrifice herself to
save him and the nation, and allows herself to be hanged.
In the present, Huan Tsung collapses at the foot of Kwei Fei's statue and we hear her voice saying that she has "come to take him away with her."
PRINCESS YANG KWEI FEI is an exquisite, dreamlike fairy tale directed with consummate artistry by one of the world's greatest filmmakers. The elegance of Mizoguchi's cinematic technique, involving slow, lateral tracking movements and subtle crane shots within long takes, combined with the
beautiful use of color and music, achieves an intoxicating and exotic sensuality.
Although most of his films were small-scale dramas and romances, with the notable exception of the mammoth two-part epic THE 47 RONIN (1941), Mizoguchi skillfully balances the commercial demands of the Shaw Brothers with a semi-nude bathing scene and some lavish battle sequences, while creating a
tragic metaphysical love story about two people, one a king, the other a slave, who are always being used and manipulated by others and are only able to find true happiness in death. The emperor would rather play his lute than attend to state affairs, and Kwei Fei, who's told to "Enjoy the good
fortune of being born pretty" by the ruthless Lu-shan, replies that "I'm your tool just the same." Machiko Kyo, who appeared in RASHOMON (1950), GATE OF HELL (1953) and many other Japanese classics, as well as TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON (1956), is superb as the simple peasant who only wants to be
in love, but unwittingly brings down a dynasty.
Mizoguchi grew up in poverty himself, and witnessed not only his mother's abuse by his father, but also his sister being sold as a geisha. These incidents informed all of his films, which invariably dealt with the exploitation of women in Japanese society. As in his masterpiece UGETSU (1953),
Mizoguchi adds an extra dimension by placing the story in the realm of the supernatural, which, combined with his renowned perfectionism takes PRINCESS YANG KWEI FEI to another poetic level.
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- Review: One of the great Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi's last films, and the first of only two he made in color, PRINCESS YANG KWEI FEI is a sumptuous love story based on an 8th-Century Chinese legend. Billed as the first Sino-Japanese co-production, it was fi… (more)