YôKIHI / The Empress Yang Kwei Fei
Japan / Hong Kong, 1955
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 20 April 2009
Source Eureka! / Masters of Cinema DVD
Reviews Sansho the Bailiff
Yôkihi stands out as an anomaly in the line of great films that Kenji Mizoguchi made in the fifties, in the years preceding his death. His first colour film (of only two), for once it is not a Japanese subject but the Chinese tale, well-known in both China and Japan, of Yang Kwei Fei, concubine to the eighth-century Tang Dynasty emperor Hsüan Tsung. Here, Japanese actors play Chinese characters in Japanese, with the additional curious effect that, because the Japanese use the Chinese writing system, all the Chinese names are turned into Japanese; so, Yang Kwei Fei becomes Yôkihi, Hsüan Tsung becomes Genso, An Lu-shan becomes Anrokusan, and so forth.
Names have a further complication in terms of what we, in English, should call the film in the first place. Masters of Cinema have taken a high-minded approach – as they have with all of the eight Mizoguchi films they’ve released in four double-packs – by providing only a Japanese title. In this way, they simply ignore the problematic titles under which the film has been known, The Empress (or, in America, Princess) Yang Kwei Fei—the problem being that the central character is neither an empress nor a princess: Yang is her family name and “Kwei Fei” an honorific referring to her status as the leading imperial concubine. In this context sticking to the film’s Japanese title Yôkihi makes a lot of sense.
Mizoguchi made Yôkihi as a co-production between his usual Japanese studio Daiei and Hong Kong’s Shaw and Sons. The latter originated the project and even if it was not unusual for Mizoguchi to direct studio-assigned work (which he would still develop personally with trusted associates, as with this film, such as screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda and art director Hiroshi Mizutani), these foreign origins probably explain the cool, distanced, and emotionally uninvolved feel to the film. Mizoguchi’s interest seems above all to be in the aesthetic look of the film, as is made clear in the opening credits sequence with its display of Chinese objets d’art.
In fact, aestheticism is a central theme of the film. Emperor Hsüan Tsung gives expression to his mourning for his late wife in aesthetic terms. The film’s first set piece, after the introductory frame of the emperor in old age, has Hsüan Tsung presiding over a performance of one of his own compositions, the underlying sadness of which is recognised by one of the musicians. “How can you expect me to compose anything joyous, the way I feel?” answers the emperor.
Both the emperor’s dedication to the memory of his dead wife and his dedication to his art are viewed by the imperial court as inimical to his duties as emperor, and as a source of his neglect of his role as ruler of the nation. So, constant attempts are made to interest him in a new woman, although such attempts are hardly disinterested; rather, they’re part and parcel of the struggle for power among the courtiers. In the case of the Yang family, it’s their means – in league with the Turkic general An Lu-shan – to advance the interests of their family and to bring about the fall of Premier Li and his.
As part of this process, we first see the third Yang sister being rejected by the emperor – although even “rejected’ seems to strong a word for the almost casual disinclination Hsüan Tsung expresses – and it’s then that General Lu notices a distant country cousin of the Yangs, Yu-huan, slaving in the kitchen and is able to detect, beneath the grime on her face, the girl’s resemblance to the late empress. Lu and the Yangs then set their plot into motion, transforming Yu-huan from abused servant girl to a refined and cultured beauty, the means by which they will lever themselves into power.
There is a fairy-tale quality to this story of a young beauty rescued from the kitchen and ending up as consort in the palace of the emperor. Yet these fairy/folk-tale elements find themselves kept firmly in check by the awareness that Yu-huan – even when she attains the title of Yang Kwei Fei, imperial concubine – still remains the tool of her family. She’s always constrained by the forces that surround her and rarely achieves anything like freedom of action.
Certainly, she has no illusions about where she stands. She sees little change in her family’s treatment of her from her time in the kitchen when she was “worse than a dog.” Now, she rejects General Lu’s talk of the great status and honour that awaits her with the bitter realism that she still remains a servant of her family, to be twisted and manipulated to the advantage of others. It’s not for nothing that the abbess talks of “moulding” Yu-huan into an acceptable form for the Emperor just as she had done for Hsüan Tsung’s late wife.
In fact, Emperor Hsüan Tsung’s status in his court parallels that of Yu-huan. He is as manipulated and constrained by those around him as she is. Right from early on he’s waging a war of resistance against the courtiers who try to push him towards one woman after another, he’s resentful of the way the premier keeps pulling him away from his music-making, and he even feels trapped by laws that he himself has passed.
It’s significant that the moment that really cements the relationship between Hsüan Tsung and Yu-huan is when the two escape the confines of the court to mingle incognito with ordinary Lantern Festival revellers in the world outside. Wandering through the crowds, snacking on street food, accepting the alcohol a band of drunks force on him, and playing the lute to Yu-huan’s dance performance, Hsüan Tsung is touched by the kindness of ordinary people (so unlike the courtiers that surround him) and a feeling of freedom that he has never experienced.
This Lantern Festival sequence is also the moment when the film really comes alive, for, to be frank, Yôkihi suffers from a rather precious attention to the recreation of the world of Imperial Ancient China, the soft pastels, the exquisite furnishings, the billowing drapes. The pace is at times glacial—just watch the way Machiko Kyo as Yu-huan/Yang Kwei Fei will turn her head oh so slowly one way and then the other. The emotional force that we expect from a Mizoguchi film has somehow gone missing here, lost somewhere among the Chinese antiques that Mizoguchi collected around himself.
Traditionally for the Chinese the story of Yang Kwei Fei has been a lesson in Confucian virtues, a warning of how a conniving, manipulative woman can divert an emperor from his true role and responsibilities. Mizoguchi’s screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda has written in his invaluable memoir on the director1 how his original, historically-based, and much more negative conception of the character of Yang Kwei Fei (Yoda talks of her pride and egoism) was transformed into one of the innocent heroine of a melodrama—to the extent that Yoda felt alienated from the project and the screenplay’s final version was completed by another writer.
In the end, Yang Kwei Fei becomes another quintessential Mizoguchi heroine, sacrificing herself for the love of the man in her life. This was a pattern established back in the thirties with characters like Taki in The Water Magician/White Threads of the Waterfall, Osen in The Downfall of Osen, and Otuku in The Story of Late Chrysanthemums. In Yôkihi Yang Kwei Fei’s sacrifice is a dual one. Popular anger against the power her family has attained through her position has broken out into open rebellion against the emperor, and Yang Kwei Fei hopes to save Hsüan Tsung – both the man she loves and the nation as embodied in him – by diverting that anger against herself.
Yang Kwei Fei quietly accepts the political need for her own execution, and this leads to what is in formal terms the most beautiful moment of the film. We never fully see Yang Kwei Fei’s walk to the tree from which she is to be hanged; Mizoguchi gives us evocative parts to represent the whole. We don’t even see Yang Kwei Fei stepping out of her slippers—rather, Mizoguchi shoots the hem of her gown dragging across the ground, leaving the slippers behind, and then has his camera chase after that gown-hem as it hovers at the edge of the frame until it finally slips away. The camera still holds, pointing down at the ground at the foot of the tree, Yang Kwei Fei’s jewellery slowly drops to the ground like tears, and there’s a sombre fade to black to mark her death. It’s a moment of powerful and exquisite restraint.
The emperor’s response as he stands over her body of “Will peace now be restored to my nation?” hardly seems an adequate one, but in the end the film firmly rejects the political justifications for Yang Kwei Fei’s death. The frame story shows the emperor, years later, lost and bereft by her death. Yôkihi celebrates the power of art (the emperor’s music-making, Mizoguchi’s aestheticisation of this eighth-century world) and of love (the authentic and ennobling love of Hsüan Tsung and Yu-huan) and rebukes the meaningless of the world of the court, of political machinations and power struggles. At the very end, there is a sense of victory as their voices, now both released after death from the bodies, meet, floating free from what Hsüan Tsung had just briefly before called this “heartless world we live in.”