Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”

Proof that CGI has cheapened the movie spectacle can be found in criticisms of films like this one, when viewers complain about the artificial sight of thousands of CGI soldiers bearing down on an immense computer model of the Forbidden City. The problem is, that ain't CGI. The filmmakers really did outfit a legion of extras in extravagant golden armor so that they could march across a set as enormous as the real palace. A few of the dangerous elements were faked (the flying spears and spurts of blood are drawn-in), but the film went to incredible lengths to put on a grand show, and that's the point: This isn't just a story of a corrupt royal family, it's about how living every day in such impossible extremes of beauty and decadence can make it seem reasonable to sacrifice tens of thousands of lives to score a point in a family argument, and the movie piles on those extremes in order to drive the point home. This is a film of exquisite beauty, set in one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous locations in history, and it makes its better-received contemporaries Pan's Labyrinth and 300 look paltry. (image) (image) (image)

At its center is a family drama as stagey as the story's origin in a play would indicate. The characters feel the burden of the empire watching their every move – literally, since they are followed everywhere by attendants – and they speak to each other with rigid formality, forcing the actors to communicate in slight deviations and shifts. The film's weakness is that the characters rarely lay down their formality in private and speak to each other like normal people, and the plot hinges on secrets that only seem to remain secret because of this social code, even if that's part of the point. This is the closest Yimou Zhang has come to marrying the emotional complexity of his early work with the grand extravagence of his recent films, and it's a striking combination.

− April 21, 2007 • more by Scottlog in or create an account to reply

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