cast: Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, So Yamamura, and Eitaro Shindo
director: Kenji Mizoguchi
98 minutes (12) 1957
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Eureka! DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Yokihi was the first of Mizoguchi’s films to be made in colour. An opportunity afforded him by a tactical alliance between the studio he worked for and a Chinese company known as Shaw and sons, a forerunner of the famous Shaw brothers studio who would later go on to dominate Asian cinema. Unfortunately, the opportunity to shoot in colour appears to have blinded Mizoguchi to his subject matter as this film is an unsettling blend of historical realism and romantic melodrama, with both aspects effectively undermining each other and resulting in a film that was seen as so ridiculous by Chinese cinemagoers of the period that it effectively contributed to the collapse of the Shaw and sons studio.
‘Yokihi’ is the Japanese pronunciation of Yang Guifei, the name of a high-ranking imperial concubine at the court of the Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty. The film begins with the Emperor an old man, living in exile after his son assumed the throne, while lamenting his lost love. We are then transported back in time to the Emperor’s court where the Emperor, then a middle-aged man, is again lamenting a lost love. Worried about his lack of interest in matters of state and his retreat into a kind of artistic dream world where he spends his days swanning about, composing music about flowers (suggesting he’s actually an idiot as well as being emotionally immature), the Emperor’s advisers attempt to get him interested in the daughters of the Yang family (with whom they have ties).
After the Emperor rejects all three sisters, the Yang family ally themselves with a provincial warlord who suggests that they give their newly arrived maid over to a local Abbess whose judgement the Emperor trusts implicitly after she introduced him to his last wife. Acutely aware that she is just as much a servant now as when she was washing dishes, Yang Yuhan (for it is she) allows herself to be schooled in the courtly arts and listens to the Abbess’ servants who know the Emperor to be a man who prises music and sincerity above all things. Before long, the Emperor is besotted with Yang Yuhan and makes her Guiefi, the highest rank of concubine. After some pleasant times spent together, the two fall in love and Yang Yuhan uses her position to get the rest of the Yang clan nice cushy places at court. However, the general feels left out in the cold and he tries to pressure Yang Yuhan into getting him a ministerial position at a time when the people are blaming the Yang clan for poor governance of the realm. The situation gets steadily worse and the general revolts, forcing the Emperor to flee with Yang Yuhan. However, she is still a part of the Yang clan, and the soldiers demand her death so that they might get the people back onside and reclaim the realm. Yang Yuhan is duly hanged. The film ends with the elderly former Emperor dying and meeting Yang Yuhan in the afterlife, free from the demands of court and politics.
As you can probably tell, this film has melodramatic romantic elements sitting cheek by jowl with quite grittily realistic realpolitik with no real attempt made to integrate the two into any coherent shape. This is a real missed opportunity as the story of Yang Gufei is undeniably a fascinating one and there would be plenty of room here for a film about the mismatch between the romantic, artistic image projected by the Emperor’s court and the viciously ambitious back-stabbing engendered by the fact that the Emperor spent more time playing the lute and marvelling at plum tree blossoms than actually running his government. Indeed, Han Hsiang Li arguably did make this film in the shape of The Magnificent Concubine (1962). That film made a clear link between the revolt and the ageing Emperor’s obsession with his young and glamorous concubine, who only too late realised that she effectively held the reigns of power. This is undeniably unfortunate as this is a very similar point to the one made by Mizoguchi in Uwasa no onna, where an ageing madam makes a fool of herself with a younger man, forcing her daughter to step in and take over. Uwasa no onna features a piece of kabuki theatre in which an old woman is mocked for falling in love as it is the business of the young, a message that could equally apply to Emperor Xuanzuong. However, aside from lacking a coherent theme or structure, Yokihi fails to impress as a romance or as a historical piece.
As Tony Rayns points out in his interesting talk about Yokihi, included herein as a DVD extra, the story of Yang Guifei is known to most Chinese people of reasonable education. Yang is referred to as one of the four great beauties of Chinese literature, putting her on a similar footing as Helen of Troy. It is unfortunate then that the writers decided to play fast and loose with the history of the period, as rather than being an impoverished peasant who came to town to work for her middle class relatives as in this film, Yang was actually a princess in her own right as a woman married to no one other than the Emperor’s son (suggesting that Tony Rayns is actually wrong and that the original release titles Princess Yang Kwei-fei and The Empress Yang Kwei Fei were actually not bad guesses).
Similarly, the Empress that the Emperor is mooning over at the beginning of the film was not an Empress but a concubine who held the exact same rank as Yang would go on to make her own. In addition to being historically inaccurate, the film’s political elements are shorn of any historical or cultural context allowing us to work out what is going on. So when people start revolting and blaming the Yang family, it seems utterly arbitrary, as Mizoguchi simply does not bother to show us the result of the Yang family gaining power; one minute they’re running a tavern and the next the country. Given the refusal to give us any historical depth, the film’s politics seem less like intrigue and plotting and more like schoolyard squabbling. As a historical piece, Yokihi is undeniably a failure.
If Mizoguchi shears away the context of the political side of film, he is no less ruthless with the psychological and emotional elements of the romance. Despite supposedly being the focus of the film, the central relationship is anaemic and unconvincing, as it simply has no time to breathe. The entire film effectively rests upon two scenes in which Yang Yuhan seduces the Emperor by telling him the truth and allowing him to sneak out of the palace dressed as a commoner. Unfortunately, both scenes rely for their emotional power upon a couple of rather Shakespearian speeches in which love is declared and grand passions inflamed but, these scenes aside, the rest of the film is full of people talking normally, so rather than coming across as romantic, the scenes come across as utterly cynical and contrived. As Mizoguchi rests the entire romance upon these two scenes, the entire romantic element flounders right up until the hideously cheesy ending that brought back memories of Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing.
Well shot and full of sumptuous colours and impressive sets, Yokihi is a feast for the eyes but a chicken pot noodle for the brain. It is not intelligent enough to be a proper historical piece and it simply is not convincing enough to be a romance, despite reuniting Macihko Kyo and Masayuki Mori from Kurosawa’s Rashomon.