Kawashima Yoshiko

Reviewed by YTSL

The makers of this movie seemed to have aspired for it to be much more than the flawed (minor) piece that it is.  Even in the form in which I saw it, there was a lushness to the cinematography (of Jingle Ma, who was nominated for a Hong Kong movie award for this film), a lavishness to the costuming, obvious thoughtfulness with regards to choices of locations, and an attempted sense of weightiness that managed to come through in a few scenes that are evidence for this.

Some of the opening scenes (including one featuring the protagonist going out riding in appropriate English-style garb with the person whom she eventually hopes to marry) looks to presage "The Soong Sisters".  At one point, the story of KAWASHIMA YOSHIKO (a.k.a. THE LAST PRINCESS OF MANCHURIA) intersects with "The Last Emperor" of China (and, consequently, Bertolucci's film of that name).  However, neither of those historical epic-type productions feature as many sex scenes and the kind of kinetic fight sequence that would not have been at all out of place in a martial arts movie as this biopic.  And perhaps it was inadvertent, but it was difficult for this Hong Kong movie fan to view a Hong Kong period film which features a woman cross-dressing, scenes of her viewing Chinese Opera, and torture that involves whipping and water without thinking of (the major classic work that is) "Peking Opera Blues".  Amidst all this, I (still) found it difficult to see this particular piece -- as Tony Rayns has done -- as "a wonderfully subversive rereading of China's modern history" (See Fredric Dannen and Barry Long's "Hong Kong Babylon", 1997:390).

On the whole, I can't help but feel that this production focused too much on one person -- a Manchu princess who was sent to Japan at a young age to be trained to eventually return to China to act as a Japanese spy, and who, from 1934 to 1940, headed the Japanese Pacification Army in Manchukuo -- at the expense of reducing other characters (including those played by Andy Lau and Derek Yee) to ciphers whom we look at with the same disinterest or disdain as the protagonist.  In doing so, too much burden was placed on the lead actress, Anita Mui, who features in almost every scene of this film.  And while Mui can command the stage and definitely is adept at being sultry and sexy, this Diva just does not convince when asked to play pathetic or desperate.  At the risk of offending fans of the Madonna of Asia, I honestly believe that this movie would have benefited so much from having an actress with the range and ability -- along with appropriate sizzle and daring -- of, say, Carina Lau (or Carrie Ng) as its star.

Generally then, this is a disappointing effort.  However, I will emphasize that there are aspects of it that are impressive.  Also, it seems to me that a biographical work that gets the viewer interested in the life of a person that (s)he previously did not know existed can't be all that bad.  At the very least, the moviemakers (including director Eddie Fong) deserve some credit for focusing on a controversial and hardly popular -- subject who and which, post Handover, I suspect will never ever be explored (fairly sympathetically) again.

My rating for the film:  6.