Friday, March 25, 2011

Review – The Kingdom and the Beauty

March 25, 2011

The Kingdom and the Beauty – Hong Kong, 1962

Emperors are just like the rest of us in some ways. Therefore, it stands to reason that like us they get tired of doing the same thing day after day. For some of us, what makes us bored may be a job that just doesn’t seem as satisfying as it once did. Emperors might get bored as a result of the monotonous ceremonies they have to sit through on a daily basis, ceremonies such as the one that begins Han Hsiang-Li’s 1962 musical, The Kingdom and the Beauty. That ceremony calls for one hundred extremely privileged members of society to pay homage to the emperor – one at a time. It’s a rite that from appearances perhaps only the most self-obsessed would truly enjoy, and it produces a few well deserved yawns from the emperor. In addition, like us, emperors have earthly interests, whether those interests are children, bicycling, chirping pet crickets or, in the case of the emperor in Han’s film, Emperor Chu Te-Cheng (Lei Zhao), the ravishingly beautiful young ladies who constantly distract him from his studies. Granted, such a reaction may not seem emperor-like, yet it is perfectly understandable that such a young man as he would not be able to prevent his eyes from gazing at the procession of gorgeous singing ladies who gracefully pass by the door of his study. After all, he’s only twenty years old. What’s amazing about the scene is that while gazing at these lovely ladies passing by, he’s still able to comprehend what they are singing about. For most young men in films, the image would have resonated but the words would have sounded like something between gibberish and a record playing at the wrong speed.

What piques the emperor’s interest is a rather melodious tune extolling both the virtues of Kiang-nan (Jiangnan), an area in the southeast part of China, and the women of that area, for according to the song, the women of Kaing-nan are both pleasing to the eyes and rather intelligent. It’s a combination of factors that the emperor finds intriguing. Looking at pictures of Kiang-nan, it’s easy to see why emperors, as well as everyday people, would be so complimentary towards it. It’s filled with lush green hills, beautiful rivers over which well built stone bridges pass, and clean roads that are occasionally filled with large joyful crowds watching street parades replete with carefully crafted colorful floats, impressive acrobats, and stunningly beautiful maidens singing traditional songs about love and romance. Alright, this last part I borrowed from the film, but who knows? Maybe it happens all the time. In any event, it’s the last part of that description of Kiang-nan – the part about the beautiful maidens - that most interests the emperor, especially after one of his ministers whole heartily agrees with the sentiments expressed in the song. Therefore, the emperor decides to don casual clothes and sneaks out of the Imperial City to see Kiang-nan for himself.

Kiang-nan indeed lives up to its reputation, for almost immediately upon arriving, the emperor spots Li Feng (Lin Dai) standing atop a dragon float singing about heavenly blossoms being in bloom and tossing small flower petals to the romantics in the crowd. The emperor gets more than his fair share of them, and from that moment on, his heart belongs to her. They eventually meet in a setting much more conducive to getting to know each other, and get to know each other they do, much to the displeasure of Li Feng’s brother-in-law, Ta Nui (King Hu). At times, the emperor is thoroughly sweet and gentlemanlike; at others, he’s a tad bit too aggressive. As for Li Feng, she finds herself drawn to him, and she does allow herself to be a bit flirtatious, yet just as they get close, just after her hands have joined his, she creates distance. She is still a maiden, after all, and a maiden must act properly. Eventually though, caution is thrown to the wind.

The first half of The Kingdom and the Beauty could rightly be considered a romance involving an unlikely pair. During this part of the film, I particularly liked the innocence of their exchanges, especially the way they react when they can no longer completely suppress their growing attraction. There’s a nice scene of them looking for an elusive cricket with Ta Nui and trying to get close enough for their hands to “accidentally” touch. I also got a kick out of the musical number in which Li Feng explains to the emperor how an emperor is supposed to act and look. The number is sweet, and I couldn’t help wondering how many people in real life believe the stereotypes she sings about, especially the one about all emperors having facial hair. The movie takes an uncomfortable turn when the setting changes to Li Feng’s room. I suspect that like me some viewers will feel extremely uneasy about the emperor’s actions and that that discomfort will not completely abate even after they see the broad smile that appears on Li Feng’s face the next morning. Just what conclusion are we supposed to draw – that Li Feng was just playing hard to get?

The second half of the film is much more serious, for it focuses on the consequences of the night that the emperor and Li Feng spend together, and there are many more consequences for her than for him. In one scene, we see her mocked by small children, gossiped about by the ladies of the town, and criticized by the customers who frequent her brother’s wine shop. Meanwhile, the emperor’s seemingly earnest declarations about her being his empress and his promises of returning for her soon are quickly forgotten, as more young ladies – this time the daughters of noble families - are paraded in front of him. In a rather telling moment, we see his eyes widen at the sight of so many beauties, and as he rises to follow them, the handkerchief that he once cherished is left behind on a chair forgotten, much like the young lady who once called it hers.

The Kingdom and the Beauty is one of those rare films that remains intriguing despite it having a degree of predictability to it. It is well acted, and some things that would probably seem silly in another film are rather effective in this one. The film’s musical numbers are excellent, and they move the plot along nicely. There’s even a sweet-sounding chorus that occasionally using song to explain how certain characters are feeling and fill in any gaps in information that the viewer may have. In addition, the ending of the film, while being somewhat obvious especially if one is familiar with the genre, remains a powerful one. And yet what I will remember most from the film is the performance of Lin Dai. Awarded Best Actress at the Asian-Pacific Film Festival in both 1961 and 1962, Lin Dai appeared in thirty-two films before her tragic death at the age of just twenty-nine. She won’t be forgotten anytime soon. (on Blu-ray in Region A)

4 stars

*The Kingdom and the Beauty is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

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