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Kingdom and the Beauty
|     review    |     notes     |     awards     |     availability     |
Chinese: 江山美人
Year: 1959
Director: Li Han-Hsiang
Producer: Sir Run Run Shaw
Cast: Linda Lin Dai, Zhao Lei, King Hu, Ma Lam, Jing Ting, Yeung Chi-Hing, Kok Lee-Yan, Chow Siu-Loi, Nam Wai-Lit, Hung Mei, Wang Yuan-Long, Hung Boh, Tong Yeuk
The Skinny: A Cinderella fairy-tale with an unquestionably Chinese ending, this Shaw Brothers adaptation of a Huangmei Opera stars Linda Lin-Dai in one of her more popular roles.
 
Review by
Calvin
McMillin:

Some movies provoke instant reactions of "I loved it!" or "I hated it!" Other films fall into the "It was okay, I guess" category. And just a few leave viewers scratching their heads at what they just saw. Sometimes this occurs because the plot is so complicated that a massive amount of information needs to be processed before gaining a full appreciation of the film. Other times, the material is just so "out there" that one isn't quite sure what to think about the movie once it's over.

And on some rare occasions, an otherwise normal film has something about it that is just a little bit off. Which brings me to The Kingdom and the Beauty, a lovingly restored film from the Shaw Brothers vaults that seems like a pretty straightforward romantic comedy from the get-go, but has a few jarring twists and turns along the way to leave the viewer questioning just how he or she is supposed to feel about the film when it's over.

Set during the Ming Dynasty, The Kingdom and the Beauty tells the story of a bored-to-tears Emperor (Zhao Lei), who decides to take a little vacation from his regal duties. His destination is Kiang Nan, a village that according to legend lays claim to the most beautiful women in all of the Middle Kingdom. Upon learning that one of his imperial guards will be heading home to Kiang Nan for a visit, the Emperor decides to tag along, much to the consternation of his royal advisers.

Once there, the Emperor happens upon a parade in celebration of the spring season and glimpses the film's title beauty (Linda Lin Dai). They smile at each other, and an obvious attraction is sparked between the handsome couple-to-be. After happening upon his beloved in the forest and playing a game with her friends, the Emperor then tracks his newfound love to a local wine shop. He learns that her name is Li Feng, an oh-so-innocent waitress working for her stern brother.

Li Feng welcomes the newcomer, but her friend Tai Niu (a surprising early acting turn by famed director King Hu) does not. Though Tai Niu is essentially the comic sidekick, it's not hard to imagine that he pines for Li Feng too, albeit offscreen. In any case, Tai Niu can do nothing as a romance blossoms between the Emperor and Li Feng. Flirtations ensue, love is declared through song, and as expected, the two eventually end up in bed together. But the next morning, the happy couple is shocked to find the Queen Mother's men outside the window with a decree: it seems our royal protagonist cannot have both the kingdom and the beauty.

Now if you're anything like me—I've seen a number of films with vaguely similar plotlines, remember what happened in the recent Hong Kong hit Chinese Odyssey 2002, and have very little background on what The Kingdom and the Beauty is all about—you'd probably suspect that something like the following scenario would occur. At first, the Emperor will bow to his mother's wishes, and abandon his beloved for his imperial duty. However, after realizing how deep his love is for Li Feng, he will risk his crown for her in a stunning declaration of love that wows not only the Queen Mother, but the all those subjects living under his rule. Once he has asserted his authoritative power, the Emperor decrees that he will marry whomever he wishes, and the couple will live happily ever after. The End.

The above, my friends, does not happen. Not even close. Whether this turn of events is a good or bad thing is debatable. The film begins, as related earlier, as a standard romantic comedy. The Emperor initially seems like a swell guy, but even before his seduction of Li Feng, his once charming smile slowly turns creepy. This is a man who has power and is not accustomed to hearing "no." This brings us to the bedroom seduction scene. By contemporary standards, what they do is not sex—it's rape. Some may want to split hairs about what was appropriate for that time, but no matter how one tries to justify it, the scene still seems more than a little disturbing.

And that scene is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the slightly off-kilter developments that begin popping up at the film's halfway mark. First of all, the consequences of the Emperor and Li Feng's tryst can be guessed by anyone remotely familiar with the content of your average afterschool special. But that's not all, folks! Not only does the Emperor run home to mommy and abandon his new love, but guess what? He FORGETS Li Feng! Just forgets her! For three years, the poor girl pines away, bears the insults of people in the neighborhood, and becomes the Hester Prynne of Kiang Nan, while Mr. Smooth Operator spends his free time with a bevy of high-priced floozies!

At this point, the viewer may cease to wonder, "Will the Emperor see the error of his ways and jettison his harem of beauties for the lovely Li Feng?" and instead think, "When will the plucky Tai Niu take up the sword and shed some royal blood?" I half expected him to form a posse of warriors and storm the palace, but to the filmmakers' credit, Tai Niu's solution to the problem is infinitely more clever, safe, and of course suited to the film's musical origins.

And perhaps that is part of what makes the film so disorienting: the contrast between the catchy, upbeat songs sung by Linda Lin Dai, and the film's increasingly downbeat content. And if you think for one second that everything's going to turn out all for the best for Li Feng, you're are in for a quite shock. Sure, the film subverts one's expectations, and totally disposes of formulaic constraints, but one can't help but feel a little frustrated by the proceedings. Ultimately, Kingdom and the Beauty is an excellent film that is definitely worth seeing, but some viewers might wonder once it's all over, "Is this what I came for?" (Calvin McMillin 2003)

 
Note:

Jeff Lau's Chinese Odyssey 2002 samples some of the music from The Kingdom and the Beauty, in particular the song Linda Lin Dai sings when she first meets the Emperor at the wine shop. Check out the Tony Leung/Faye Wong anachronistic dance number in Chinese Odyssey 2002 to compare the two.

Awards: 6th Annual Asian Film Festival
• Best Picture
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Intercontinental Video Limited
Full Screen (original aspect ratio)
Mandarin Language Track
Removable English, Chinese, and Bahasa Subtitles
Full Screen; Audio Commentary By Josie Ho Chiu-Yee & Paul Fonoroff; Interviews; Trailers; Color Stills; Original Poster; Production Notes; Cast/Crew Information
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image courtesy of Intercontinental Video, Ltd.

   
   
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