Set during the Tang Dynasty in 7th Century China, this sprawling historical biopic recounts the amazing life of Empress Wu Zhao (Li Li-Hua). As a teenage concubine she bore the late Emperor two sons before being exiled to a Buddhist monastery. New Empress Wang (Diana Chang Chung-Wen) arranges for her return as concubine to the current Emperor Tang Gao Zhong (Chao Lei), hoping the intelligent and literate young woman will be a stabilizing influence, but also secretly conspiring to have her eliminated. Her efforts fail as she is exiled and the concubine is crowned empress. Over the ensuing years Empress Wu faces usurpers in the form of her sons Crown Prince Hsien (Chiao Chuang) and Prince Hsuan (Lo Chi), and scheming ministers Pei Yan (Lo Wei) and Lu Bin Wang (Yeung Chi-Hing). She also earns the respect of young poetess Wan Er (Ting Ning), daughter of a former enemy who becomes her most trusted aide, whilst governing China with a steady hand.
Empress Wu was a prestigious production from Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio and compares favourably with contemporary Hollywood historical epics, with its lush sets and colourful costumes inhabited by a thousand extras. However, veteran filmmaker Li Han-hsiang wisely never lets the pageantry overshadow the drama. Han-hsiang was Shaw’s resident “serious” auteur, a skilled hand at historical epics and social realist dramas, though he later branched out into arty erotica or soft-core porn with pretensions, depending on how you look at it. Here he dabbles in sexual intrigue at the imperial court as the emperor foolishly indulges his boredom by seducing Wu Zhao’s sister Madame He Lan (Chan Wan-Wa) - the aftermath of which drives her to suicide - and Prince Hsien succumbs to a poisoned aphrodisiac, but the focus is primarily on one woman of remarkable intelligence and guile and her struggle hold onto her throne whilst seemingly besieged by enemies throughout her whole lifetime.
Propelled by a powerhouse performance from award-winning actress Li Li-Hua, the film follows the empress from her teenage years to doddering old age where she still proves a formidable figure gamely facing down one last attempted coup. Like so many imperial biopics the film is in part a portait of a severely dysfunctional family, with a steadfast matriarch trying to reign in her recalcitrant offspring but alienating them all the same. Han-hsiang discerns the pointed irony in that Wu Zhao's success at bringing strength and stability to China come from her refusal to conform to the accepted image of a "good" mother and a "morally respectable" woman. The further she fractures her family, the more secure the empire becomes even if the public perception of her is as an uncaring monster. Two fascinating scenes showcase her sheer force of will and willingness to push the boundaries: one in which she confronts Crown Prince Hsien over his treachery and reduces him to a blubbering wreck and an incident where she refuses to take action against a monastery of nuns accused of seducing young men. The empress decrees she will rewrite the centuries old laws governing women's sexual morality and when this outrages her chief minister, she proves her point by first ordering then staying his execution before taking him as her lover.
Nevertheless, though the film admires Wu Zhou's proficiency as a stateswoman and her knowledge of art and science, it remains an ambiguous portrait. Frail and innocent at the start, she grows progressively more ruthless as years roll by and exibits occasional poor judgement, though often redeemed by her bravery and selflessness. Wan Er sees the empress at her best, but the film keeps things vague as to how involved she was in the deaths of her sons. Although Li-Hua provides the star turn, Ting Ning shines as the conflicted teenage handmaiden and the film features significant acting roles for Lo Wei, better known as the director of Fist of Fury (1971), and visionary filmmaker King Hu who went on to make Shaw Brothers' breakthrough martial arts epic, Come Drink with Me (1966). Whereas some of Han-hsiang’s movies suffer from sedate pacing, Empress Wu glides deftly through significant episodes and proves an entertaining history lesson.