About twenty-two hundred years ago, Shi Huangdi, who ruled over one of the several kingdoms that constituted China, undertook the unification of the Chinese empire - building a country that has roughly the same size and configuration as today. It was a formidable endeavor, at once political, diplomatic and military. Director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) has opted for the allegorical - no doubt by talking about the past, he also talks about contemporary China - and for the romantic: we are dealing here with a beautiful and brave concubine madly in love with the young king in search of absolute power. The sets are glorious, and so are the furniture, the costumes, the props, all sorts of historical details. Words like "epic," "fresco," "sweeping," "cast of thousands" come to mind. So do, unfortunately, phrases like "confusing and academic," "not as inventive as one would expect from one of the leaders of China's Fifth Generation of filmmakers."
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More disturbing is the near absence of Gong Li. Yes, she is quite often on screen, yes she is gorgeous, yes, she even scars her cheek at one point (and quickly hides the scar behind a cascade of hair, unless the plot absolutely demands that we see it). But throughout the film, her face remains, well, l'Oréaled-out, as expressionless as when she sats in the audience on opening night as a L'Oréal guest and representative. I never thought I'd use the word "bland" in conjunction with Gong Li.
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