Great Conqueror's Concubine, The
China Hong Kong 1994
Directed by Stephen Shin.

This movie is so long it was released as two seperate movies in some markets. It is the end of the Qin Dynasty, the Han are rising ascendant, and Gong Li is there.

The Great Conqueror's Concubine begins with the decline and fall of the Qin Dynasty and ends with the establishment of the Han. In between, rival generals battle for control of the empire, sworn brothers become enemies, and in the end, only one can be king.

This movie is epic in every sense of the word. Gigantic battle scenes, sweeping spectacle, incredible sets, and some of the best actors from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong together make the film so epic in fact that it was released in some markets as two seperate films, The Great Conqueror's Concubine Part 1 and Part 2. Despite all the trappings that make one expect a slow, plodding, mainland production, director Stephen Shin is able to inject the action and pace of a Hong Kong movie into the works, making the story long, but never dull.

The tale opens with an assassination attempt against Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, in which the assassin kowtows to the Emperor, then pulls two of the most gigantic weapons I've ever seen out of the dusty ground in front of him and attacks. They look like two giant metal pumpkins on the end of baseball bats. He whips up a killing frenzy, but does not succeed in killing Qin Shi Huangdi. Coincidentally, though, the old Emperor coughs up some blood and dies anyway. The Emperor would have had his first son, Prince Fusu, ascend the dragon throne, but as it happens the court eunuch Zhao Gao puts the Prince to death and the Emperor's second son, Huhai, becomes the next in line for the succession. Since Huhai is decadent, corrupt, nasty, stupid, and good buddies with the eunuch, the empire goes to hell in a handbasket fairly quickly.

Word spreads that the first Emperor has died, and the states move quickly to restore their Kings. The old prince of Chu is found tending sheep as a shepherd. He is made King of Chu, though he still likes to have a little lamb in his lap. His general, Xiang Yu (Ray Lui), kicks off the revolution against the Qin Emperor, with warriors from many of the different states joining together under his banner. At the same time, Liu Bang (Zhang Fengyi) revolts, leading the people of Pei. However, Liu Bang's men are without proper weapons, and so they quickly join Xiang Yu and his army. Both men have ambitions, both men eventually hope to become the next Emperor. But neither man seem totally willing to go the course, each with their own nobility, their own pride. Enter Lady Liu (Gong Li), Liu Bang's wife.

Lady Liu is this tale's Lady Macbeth, though not to one general but to two. She feeds their egos, pushes them forward, plotting one day to be Empress. But unlike Lady Macbeth, she never gets much concerned over the blood on her hands.

Everything you need to know about Lady Liu is illustrated in the very first scene in which she is introduced. When we first meet Mrs. Liu, Liu Bang's men are trying to round up the family -- Qin soldiers are coming, and they must flee for their lives. Liu Bang's elderly mother spends too much time trying to collect the 'treasures' of her house, and though Lady Liu gets her to their carriage, cutting through Qin soldiers with the help of a machete, the old lady drops her valuables and tries to grab them. The Qin soldiers grab Liu's mother, and the carriage cannot go forward, since Liu's mother is grasping a rope attached to the back and won't let go. Lady Liu cuts the rope, saving herself and the rest of the family, but condemning the mother to a violent death. When confronted by Liu Bang about her cruelty, she puts a positive spin on it, stating she only wished to save his family, and offering her life for it. He decides against killing her, a good thing, too, because he certainly would have never amounted to anything without her.

There is one last character to be introduced in this drama, Xiang Yu's beloved, Miao Ge (Rosamund Kwan). A simple, naive rich girl who understands only love and common decency. Duplicity is beyond her comprehension. There could not be two women more opposite of each other. Liu Bang immediately forms an attraction to Miao Ge, while for her part Lady Liu admires Xiang Yu. Lady Liu ingratiates herself with Miao Ge to get closer to the General, and the two women soon swear to be like sisters to one another. Did I mention the two women start bathing together? Ah, it's the little things that really help keep the interest up in these big epic dramas, don't you agree?

The combined Chu forces suffer a major defeat at the hands of Qin General Wang Li, and Xiang Yu's uncle, General Xiang Liang, is killed in the assault. Liu Bang is promoted as a result to the General of the West, and the King of Chu makes a proclamation stating that the first General to enter the Qin captial of Xianyang will become a Lord.

But Xiang Yu has no time for making a run to the capital -- he wants revenge for his uncle, and marches his army to the city of Julu, to engage the Qin forces which were sieging the city, in a famous battle. Xiang Yu had only 20,000 troops, with which he was determined to engage the 200,000 person strong Qin army. To prove their resolve, after crossing the Zhang River on the way to Julu, they scuttled all their boats and smashed their cooking pots. There would be no retreat. Even today in China, to say you "smash pots and sink boats" is to say you are determined to go forward, whatever the difficulty.

What follows are several glorious battle scenes in which Xiang Yu defeats the Qin and routes its army while Liu Bang makes his way to the capital Xianyang and takes it, despite a promise to wait for Xiang Yu, who is still busy engaging the main Qin forces. And in the meantime, Miao Ge, now Lady Yu, goes in search of Xiang Yu, only to be captured by Qin forces and sent to the wicked Second Emperor.

Liu Bang, now also called Lord Pei, abolishes the Qin laws, and establishes some simpler rules: "Only murderers, robbers, and rapists will be beheaded." Any questions? All of Lady Liu's machinations have at last borne fruit, as she can sit, for a moment, on the Dragon Throne. But not for long. Xiang Yu is on his way to the capital, and mad as hell about it. He calls a meeting with Liu Bang, who has no option but to accept. They have a feast together, pretending all is well, but an air of menace hangs over the affair. This is another famous episode -- the "Hong Men Feast." Liu Bang manages to get into the good graces of Xiang Yu once again, even though Xiang Yu's advisor, Fan Zheng, encourages him repeatedly to take Liu Bang's life and be done with it. Since General Xiang makes no move to do so, Fan Zhang orders a sword dance to be performed, pretending that it is for entertainment, when actually they have planned to use the dance to kill Liu Bang. But Liu Bang's men are clever, too, and they manage to distract Fan Zheng and, under the pretense of feeling drunk, Liu Bang is able to retreat in safety.

And here, at the conclusion of The Great Conqueror's Concubine, Part 1, the film follows the outlines of history, but also must explain the circumstances surrounding what happens. Xiang Yu is, for the most part, a good man as presented here. He is at least more honorable than Liu Bang and his venomous wife. So why does he do what he does when he arrives at Xianyang? The Records of the Grand Historian, or Shiji, describes the events which end the first part of the epic film:

Ziying had been king of Qin for forty-six days when the governor of Pei (Liu Bang), the military leader from Chu, defeated the Qin armies, entered the Wu Pass, and advanced as far as Bashang. He sent men to bargain with Ziying and persuade him to surrender. Ziying accordingly tied a rope around his neck, came in a plain carriage drawn by white horses, handed over the seals and credentials of the Son of Heaven, and surrendered by the side of Zhi Road.

The governor of Pei then entered Xianyang, sealed up the palaces and storehouses, and returned to encamp at Bashang. A month or so later, the forces of the other states arrived, with Xiang Yu as their leader. He killed Ziying and the other princes of the ruling family and their relatives, and then went on to massacre the inhabitants of Xianyang, burn the palaces, take prisoner the men and women that staffed them, and confiscate their goods and treasures, which were divided among the various leaders.

These are not usually the actions of a hero. But with the palace in flames, the Qin army defeated, and Liu Bang deferring power to Xiang Yu and his powerful army, Part 1 comes to a close.

Just by itself, without even watching Part 2, the first half of the film is great entertainment. Massive battles, sweeping spectacle, and a few really bizarre strategems, such as hiding two gigantic maces in the dirt, or rolling huge flaming balls of wood into a ravine filled with soldiers, keep the action constantly in the forefront. And where else can you see Gong Li and Rosamund Kwan take not one, but two baths together? Ray Lui does a fine job as Xiang Yu, here, but his best moments come later, in Part 2.

With the Qin Dynasty gone, and a puppet King on the Chu throne, Xiang Yu is the man in charge. He proclaims himself the Great Western Conqueror, while Liu Bang is given less than his due -- a crummy western kingdom called Hanzhong, and given the title King of Han. He does get himself a nifty new banner, though -- yellow, with a bird on it, to distinguish his men from the Red banner armies of Chu. Liu Bang leaves for his new territory, but must leave his wife, Lady Liu, behind as a hostage, which she is more than happy to do, since it allows her to work her evil mojo on someone else for a while.

Liu Bang gathers his strength, while Xiang Yu suppresses a rebellion led by a relative of the King. He kills the rebel, and reports it to the King, who insists Xiang Yu is put to death. Not the wisest choice for the poor King of Chu, who pets his goat for the last time. Liu Bang takes advantage of this opportunity, when Xiang Yu is accused of murdering the King for his own ambition, to gather an army and attack.

Meanwhile, Lady Liu is manipulating both men, influencing Xiang Yu in his palace, sending notes to Liu Bang to apprise him of the situation. Their conflict continues for two years, before Xiang Yu offers a truce, and agrees to splitting the country between them, which only serves to give Liu Bang time to recover and gain reinforcements before attacking again. Xiang Yu is on the run, defeated at each battle, more and more of his army defecting or deserting. At last, he is surrounded by Liu Bang's forces. Xiang Yu plays a drum and sings, lamenting:

My strength uprooted mountains,
My spirit overstepped the world;
But the times are against me,
and my horse can gallop no more.

And then lady Yu meets him in the tent, and by this time, we at last understand the significance of the title, The Great Conqueror's Concubine. Because the pivotal events are at last unfolding, as dramatized in the great opera The King's Parting With His Favorite, yes; this is Farewell My Concubine, brought to life. Xiang Yu is the great King of Chu, trapped, at his wits end. Lady Yu is his favorite concubine, who sees he is more concerned with her safety than with escape, and does what she feels she must. In the end, Xiang Yu must face the forces of Liu Bang with only a handful of loyal troops remaining. A boatman comes, offering to ferry him across the waters to safety, but he sighs, "I started the revolution with eight thousand men, how can I face the parents of my dead comrades, now?" The time for the King of Chu is at an end, and Liu Bang goes on to found the Han Dynasty.

The Great Conqueror's Concubine is a really enjoyable film. It's not some kind of brilliant art film or anything, the direction is competent, but nothing to write home about. But it is a solid tale filled with colorful characters, with actors participating from Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. The mainland contingent features Gong Li, who puts in one of the best performances of her career, as the clever, plotting Lady Liu. It comes as no surprise to realize that, historically, Lady Liu eventually became Empress for a time, after the death of her husband, the first woman ever to do so in the history of China. She gave the position a bad name, too, enjoying murder and torture to the extent that she was eventually overthrown. Gong Li brings this ruthless character to life. Zhang Fengyi, as her husband, Liu Bang, is relatively more sedate. The two also costar in Farewell My Concubine, where Fengyi plays an actor who does the King of Chu, he is on the opposite side of the fight, here.

Of the Hong Kong actors, Ray Lui is a standout as the tragic character of Xiang Yu. At first a somewhat stereotypical military character, he develops and grows throughout the film, making both good decisions and bad, struggling to be honorable when seizing the throne means being anything but, until at last he plays out the tragic end of the tale. Perhaps one of his best performances. Compare that to the lackluster, boring Rosamund Kwan as Lady Yu -- didn't anyone tell her to put a little spark of life in her performance? Was she thinking of something else when she was on screen? Although Kwan is often a good actress, she is simply dwarfed by Gong Li and Ray Lui, and by the end you find it hard to believe the movie is named after her.

The supporting cast is excellent as well, and I would be remiss if I did not recommend that you be on the lookout for Hong Kong character actor extraordinaire Tsui Kam Kong, who plays one of the Generals in the Chu army, and is wounded so badly he loses "an eye, a hand, and a leg," but is still willing to keep fighting.

The Great Conqueror's Concubine Part 1 and Part 2 are both well worth the time spent watching them. I recommend them to anyone who enjoys seeing Chinese history come to life, complete with epic battles, larger than life heroes, devious villains, and, of course, beautiful women bathing together.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 03, 2004.

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