When the Emperor senses a looming threat, he relocates his family from the Palace. While they are en route, mysterious assassins attack them. His family’s return sets off a tumultuous sequence of dark surprises. Amid the glamour and grandeur of royalty, ugly secrets are revealed.
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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.
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.
This meticulously planned epic film from Zhang Yimou ranks near the top of his rich and varied filmography. Exquisite in detail on every level this represents a master class in costume, set design and art direction while providing an incredible script and characterizations as well. The duplicity in plotting is supreme as are the performances from a perfectly cast ensemble. Essential cinema.
The operatic rigor, the aesthetic formality is quite astounding. With such outrageous grandiosity, every subtle gesture, look, twitch, hint becomes hugely meaningful. As usual Zhang Yimou produces scenes of great choreographed beauty. Watching it, I thought of the book "The Autumn of the Patriarch". The emptiness and loneliness of power is taken to the borders of insanity and egomania. Which quite suits power.