Hsi Shih: Beauty of Beauties (1965)

A sprawling historical epic set during China’s Warring States period as one king oppresses another king and his people—there’s a sense of tragic grandiosity to the overwrought melodrama while this shorter restored version is still too long.  

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Review #2,613

Dir. Li Han-Hsiang
1965 | Taiwan | Drama/History | 154 min | 2.35:1 | Mandarin
PG (passed clean) for some violence

Cast: Zhao Lei, Chu Mu, Leung Sing Poh
Plot: In a story drawn from China’s legendary Warring States Period, the King of Yue, Goujian, is defeated and imprisoned by the King of Wu, Fucha. But when Goujian returns to his much-maligned homeland, he is determined to defeat Wu once and for all, with a secret weapon.
Awards: Won 5 Golden Horses – Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction
Source: Taiwan Film & Audiovisual Institute

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Power & Control
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Oldham Theatre – Singapore Chinese Film Festival
Spoilers: No

I must say that this is a historical epic, not of the highest order, but the smuggest order, where its filmmaking ambitions are laid clearly for all to see, for better or worse.  Thousands of extras, grand sets, huge battle scenes and a narrative that seems to encompass all manner of intrigue—political, societal and gender. 

For a good half, I’ve to admit being swept away by Li Han-Hsiang’s grandiose scheme, fully committing to the experience, but at the same time, also realising that at some point, the pompous storytelling needs more than characters just saying lines to advance the narrative. 

Originally released as a two-parter back in the mid-‘60s, Hsi Shih: Beauty of Beauties is presented here as a shorter digitally restored version, which is still a good half-hour too long. 

“Just remember, always remember.”

Set during China’s Warring States period, the King of Wu, Fucha, defeats and begins oppressing the King of Yue, Goujian, and his poor and starving people. 

The titular character, Hsi Shih, who is from Yue, is sent, along with eleven other ‘beauties’, to seduce Fucha in hopes of incapacitating him.  She is somewhat sidelined in the larger scheme of things—this is, after all, a world where conniving men rule or be ruled. 

Still, there is some comedy, intended or otherwise, to be had even when conversations either overstay their welcome or are so rudimentary that it is hard to see these characters as more than one-dimensional. 

A sprawling, sometimes tragic, work, Hsi Shih is not exactly uncompelling, but its overwrought melodrama can only be sustainable for so long.  A flawed but still somewhat enjoyable epic.

Grade: B-


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