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China 907 AD, the Tang Dynasty has come to an end, and the land is in
turmoil (the period is also known as the Period of Five Dynasties and
Ten Kingdoms): Li (Ge You) has just killed his brother, the Emperor,
and usurped his throne, but much more than that, he has also taken his
widow, Wan (Zhang Ziyi), the Empress Dowager, and has made her Empress
again - and somehow she seems to be all too willing to become his consort
... but actually she worries not so much about power but about Prince Wu
Luan (Daniel Wu), her stepson and the rightful heir to the throne, with
whom she has long had a secret relationship. And indeed, Li has already
sent out his assassins to kill Wu Luan, who has more interests in the arts
than in politics anyways, but is a well-enough fighter to escape death and
make it to the Imperial Palace unscathed.
Emperor Li though has a lot of other ideas to have Wu Luan killed, like
having him stabbed in a public swordsplay demonstration - where he is only
just saved by the Empress - or sending him to the neighbouring Khitan
Empire as part of a peace-keeping hostage exchange program while at the
same time ensuring that he never arrives ...
Still, the Empress has learned about this plot as well and puts a
diabolical plan into action: She knows that minister Win's (Ma Jingwu)
daughter Quin (Zhou Xun) is in love with Wu Luan, so she takes her hostage
and forces the minister - who is such a weasel that he managed to stay
loyal to the last three emperors - to make his son, an army general (Huang
Xiaoming), save Wu Luan from certain doom.
Back at the palace, the Emperor is preparing for a Banquet while the
Empress is preparing for his death, having acquired a most potent poison
to add to his wine - something the minister and his son have grown wise
about but they dare not inform the Emperor feating for Quin's life.
At the Banquet though. everathing ends in turmoil when, much to the
horror of the minister and his son, Quin drinks from the Emperor's wine
and dies on the spot. When the Emperor realizes his own wife has tried to
poison him, he is shattered and kills himself by drinking from the wine
too. Wu Luan enters the stage, ready to inherit the throne after all and
embrace his love, the Empress, when the minister's son attacks the empress
with a sword. Wu Luan catches the sword with his hand, but the sword was
tipped in poison, and within minutes he dies while the Empress stabs her
assailant to death.
Though the Empress has now lost everybody, she's at the peak of her
power, being the sole ruler of the kingdom ... but not for long, because
in the closing shot, she too is stabbed by a person unknown ...
A very loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet that rearranges
the story considerably and shifts its focus to the central female
character - which is in this case an excellent choice because the central
female character is played by Zhang Ziyi, who once more demonstrates her
superior acting skills and her ability to carry this kind, any kind of
film. But even if she is impossible to overlook, the film doesn't begin
and end with Zhang Ziyi: The film is beautifully photographed, beautifully
choreographed (and I don't just mean the martial arts sequences, which are
rather scarce anyways - after all, this is not a martial arts film
as such), and isn't boring for even one minute despite lengthy dialogues
and the occasional extended quiet scene.