Qingdao, China, 1948: Mao's Red Army is on the move, the Nationalist capital city of Nanjing is surrounded and amid all this revolutionary upheaval, Fei (Zhou Xun), a scholarship student at a small school, is recalled to her childhood home. Master Li, the rich and powerful businessman for whom Fei's mother once worked as a maid before she and young Fei were exiled from the Li estate, has just died. It was an open secret that Fei's mother was Master Li's mistress, and Master Li always acknowledged that Fei was his illegitimate daughter. Master Li's "legitmate" child, Lady Ying (the striking Vivian Wu), was Fei's closest childhood companion -- her official patrimony prevented her from ever calling Fei "sister" -- and Lady Ying now insists that Fei return to the lavish Li home. Lady Ying's reasons are far from sentimental: With the communist revolution inching ever closer to Qingdao, Lady Ying is anxious to liquidate her father's estate and leave China with her lover, Huang (Want Zhi Wen), a boxing promoter from the south who now runs one of the shabby casinos on the Qindao waterfront. But according to Master Li's will, Lady Ying won't collect her inheritance until Fei agrees to return home and officially acknowledge Lady Ying's right to the property. Fei, however, has not intention of returning to the bosom of the family who so grievously wronged her mother and herself. Instead, she plans on remaining in her cramped city apartment and becoming a doctor. Frustrated, Lady Ying plays her trump card: Master Li's estate had been paying her school tuition, and if Fei doesn't return to Master Li's estate, assume the family name and attend a nearby private school -- in other words, become a creation of Master Li like Lady Ying -- her academic scholarship will be cancelled and her education ended. Like Lady Ying, who was groomed for little more than to be a beautiful show-piece for a wealthy man, Fei must surrender to the grip Master Li still maintains on his daughters, even from beyond the grave.
Lady Ying uses Fei's long-repressed need to feel part of the Li family to manipulate Fei, who uses her sexual allure over Huang to get back at the sister who once turned her back on her, and the whole thing begins to simmer like a juicy melodrama. But Hu and her three screenwriters -- Wang Bin and American duo Beth Schacter and Michael Eldridge -- never lose sight of just how circumscribed these women's lives are by ancient patriarchal strictures. Beautifully art directed, costumed and shot (by Scott Kevan, who brought the same to exotic haze to the interiors of SECRETARY), the whole thing feels like a living, breathing tableaux vivant from a China that is about to abruptly disappear. leave a comment --Ken Fox
Chinese director Ann Hu follows-up her tepid 2000 debut SHADOW MAGIC with another luscious historical drama that, thankfully, is a lot more interesting. The plot is no less melodramatic, but here melodramatics work along with the film's theme, not against it.