The great Chinese actress Gong Li delivers a performance of exquisite expressiveness as a young concubine in Zhang Yimou’s visually ravishing 1991 drama of defiance, deception and authoritarian power. In a rare 35mm print.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2018
Of the Fifth Generation filmmakers who reinvented Chinese cinema in the 1980s (while frequently banned from homeland screens) Zhang Yimou was the superstar, and the biggest embarrassment. Each of the films he made with actress Gong Li pitted her against authoritarian power. The political allegory was eagerly consumed in the west, with encouragement from the director. Zhang’s subsequent career has been understandably bumpy, until his staging of the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 signalled rehabilitation on a colossal scale.
Ultimately, it was the stellar Gong Li and the pictorial brilliance of Zhang’s films – the exquisite chinoiserie of this one in particular – that thrilled western audiences. We are grateful to the Academy Archive for the opportunity to be ravished once more by a 35mm print from their library of Oscar nominees.
“In this dazzling dynastic drama a young girl (Gong Li) elects to become ‘Fourth Mistress’ to a tyrannical old lord in 1920s China. Trapped with her in the mazelike palace, we act out a drama of inter-concubine jealousy, false pregnancies, punishment and terror at the closing walls of an inescapable destiny…
Ex-cinematographer Zhang Yimou knows when to beautify an expanse of smoky-blue roof with a blood-red lantern; when to use snowfall like a cosmic shroud over human hope; when to move his camera back from an action rather than forward to enhance its power. Brilliantly, we never see the lord’s face in close-up. He is a shadowy totem exalted by remoteness, just like the wielders of a totalitarian power.” — Nigel Andrew, Financial Times