Yimou returns to the court drama of his early career, complete with Gong Li eminent as ever, but brings the over the top dazzling visuals from his more recent works to create the ultimate Yimou fusion. The web of intrigue is expertly weaved and despite the somewhat large cast, every character gets their chance to shine.
Beneath marvelous visuals and masterful direction of action and fight scenes lies a story full of intrigues within imperial family that transcends beyond the gates of palace. Betrayal and torment are everyone's playing cards and nobody comes out as a villain nor a hero. Still, the tragedy which is inevitable manages to hit emotional core even without a character with whom the certain feelings could be manifested.
Plays out like a beautiful soap opera about a family with secrets that crash to the surface. In the final act everything is turned up to 11, which is entertaining for the most part if not ridiculously over the top, also a great performance from Gong Li. Worth a watch but disposable afterwards.
I like how the starting point's status quo returns in the end (square in a circle) and becomes much more justificated. After all the Emperor and the Empress are both antiheroes, so a fight between them (deduction of War and Peace) will cause only meaningless sufferings.