Lover of the Last Empress

(1994, 2:35, Andrew Lau)
* = Moments of Interest

The oft-filmed story of Tzu Hsi’s beginnings as a concubine in the Manchu court to her becoming the infamous Empress Dowager is given the sexploitation treatment in this glossy but empty version. Staying with the basic historic outline of Hsi’s rise, many liberties are taken in illustrating the literal lust for power and revenge that fuels the characters. The brother of Emperor Hsien Feng, Prince Kung (played by Tony Leung who, unlike in “The Lover”, does his sex scenes visibly clothed from the waist down) saves Hsi (Yau Shuk Ching) and her nanny from roadside bandits in a preposterous scene that would belong better in a wuxia/swordsman film.Emperor Feng (Yu Rong Gaug) and Hsi make whoopee in a Buddhist temple, while Hsi’s climb to power is likened to her premonitions of sexually riding a large dragon and her vengeful nature is explained as due to a spiteful concubine that, who in the first act, boils her cat.

This reductive but inflamed version of history is given a high-production look that sets it apart from a lot of softcore, but director Andrew Lau (who not only has shot films for Wong Kar-Wai and Tsui Hark, but who directed the “Young and Dangerous” series and served as co-director on the “Infernal Affairs” series) seems very bored by the material. There is a professionalism to the execution, but it belies a mechanical approach that just moves from one scene to another with a detached eye. The filmmaking is serviceable, but the film’s lurid elements need to be pushed more for it to become the scandalous exposĂ© it purports to be, or even just an enjoyable romp. The lack of verve or resonance results in a film that plays like a tepid schoolboy fantasy told by a wise but dry history teacher.

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