2006, Hong Kong/China, directed by Zhang Yimou
Zhang Yimou's third historical epic, after Hero and House of the Flying Daggers, first struck me (and many others) as his transposition of Shakespearean themes to a Chinese context, but on reflection it's more John Webster than the Bard, given the insistently bleak view of humanity, and, importantly, the complete absence of any comic relief, which Shakespeare would no doubt have restored in a script polish. Like his previous swordplay films, Zhang is as interested in colour and form as he is in the details of plot, although the interwoven familial betrayals are crucial to the atmosphere of moral collapse in the court of a 10th century Tang dynasty ruler (Chow Yun Fat). The first hour of the film sets up the complex intrigue, focusing particularly on the Empress (played by Gong Li, reunited, onscreen, with Zhang after a ten-year hiatus) and her sons, while the second half sees the chickens come home to roost in spectacular, and bloody, fashion. Like Zhang's previous epics, the film looks astonishing. The sets, costumes and lighting are magnificent, often awash with colour, but it's not empty spectacle: like The Queen, the film uses the trappings of wealth to illustrate the notion of divorce from the people, while the almost hermetic removal from ordinary life has a certain poignancy at times: these characters are trapped in pre-ordained roles, and the film unfolds their tragedies mercilessly. The swordplay is less central than in the previous films, though the action, when it arrives, is brilliantly choreographed (the flying ninjas are especially thrilling).