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Qian Long huang yu san gu niang (Emperor Chien Lung and the Beauty, 1979)

Li Han-Hsiang

Hong Kong

100 min, color, Mandarin (English subtitles)

Review © 2003 Branislav L. Slantchev

Yet another entry in the series of adventures of the young and dashing Emperor Chien Lung (of the Ch'ing dynasty), played by the no less young and dashing Liu Yung. This time, the emperor journeys incognito to Suzhou where he (a) hooks up with the beautiful courtesan Miss San (Pan Ping-Chang), (b) admirably tries to raise money for restoration of the earthquake-devastated city, and (c) somewhat less admirably does that by hanging out at seedy establishments like the Wan Li House casino, where he enjoys rigged gambling, bar-fighting kung-fu, peeking at delicious Mrs. Wan's (Liu Hui-Ling) navel, and gawking at no less delicious Miss Hsiao Li-pao (Hui Ying-Hung) as she batters her way through an endless procession of casino goons All in good fun, of course, while the two high-ranking officials Judge Ngo (Chiang Nan) and Hunchback Liu (Li Kun) play petty and friendly intrigue.

Liu Yung is Emperor Chien Lung Pan Ping-Chang is the courtesan Miss San

Apart from the nice-looking cast, there is very little to recommend this film. As comedy it's stale and so-so at best despite the several somewhat fresh moments like Liu having to impersonate a rambunctious dog, or the general fun of seeing evil guy's designs being thwarted forever by the timely revelation of the Emperor's identity. On the whole, however, the movie is sadly lacking in entertainment value. Even the designs, although elaborate, are limited and one gets a weird feeling of claustrophobia watching them.

When a high official gets caught at Miss San's Gratuitous shot of Pan Ping-Chang

The story meanders without much purpose and jumps from event to event without explanation. At the beginning, the film is about the lusts of the Emperor who has a secret tunnel dug from his palace to Miss San's residence. He goes there, even during vegetarian day, the dirty bastard, to sample Miss San's charms and cuisine. For some bizarre reason, Judge Ngo tries to expose his rival Hunchback Liu during the latter's visit to Miss San (completely innocent for a change) but instead runs afoul of the Emperor who has come to taste the wonders of the local dish Gilded Jade, Green Parrot with Red Bill.

The Emperor eaves-dropping This is for my agent!

Then the film becomes the harrowing story of the Imperial Kitchen seeking in vain for ways to prepare the damn dish which, although known to every street vendor in Suzhou, is apparently beyond the ample means of the imperial cooks. They should all be beheaded for this, of course, but the Emperor relents and decides to behead Judge Ngo, who for some inexplicable reason is in charge of the dish preparation. Unfortunately, no beheading occurs because Hunchback Liu saves Ngo by tossing a salad that the Emperor likes.

Liu Yung, Chiang Nan, and Li Kun Liu Hui-Ling is Mrs. Wan, proprietress

Suddenly, we shift to the city itself which looks a lot like Harlem: crumbling buildings, destitute people, and dirty canal water. The emperor wants to rebuild it but it would cost 400 million taels of gold, which, I am told, is a lot of money. Certainly more than the Emperor has in his coffers. So, the intrepid Emperor who is not to be thwarted in his benevolence, gets some pocket money and goes to raise the rest by gambling. On his way he meets an old guy who is about to commit suicide but instead gives the Emperor a speech about how incompetent the Emperor is. Of course, the guy is totally rights, so no beheading is in order. At this point there is a glimpse of a morality play, with the Emperor renouncing his gallivanting ways, but no, the danger quickly passes and we're thrown deep in the maelstrom of gambling.

Hui Ying-Hung is little Li-Pao... ...who is as dangerous than she looks

It gets worse. We are now treated to the Emperor's good nature as he listens to some random senile schmuck make up stories about the Emperor. (No beheading.) Then he gambles and wins, gambles and wins, while a young guy who is obviously a girl (this is one thing a person has to get used to --- nobody can ever tell the obvious girl in these movies until some bad dude does or she decides to uncover herself) proceeds to win a lot by betting as the Emperor. (No beheading.) The Emperor is amused (no beheading) and wins even more using his imperial lucky charms. The casino people get upset and try to cheat him out of his money (no beheading but a lot of punching, the Emperor being a worthy disciple of Shaolin). Then the casino proprietress sinks even lower by exposing her navel and then having the Emperor arraigned in a corrupt court. Then beheadings almost happen as the Emperor's identity is established at the last moment. Why Little Li-pao was allowed to walk and hug her grand daddy in the presence of the Emperor remains a mystery.

A little girlie eye-to-eye It's good to be the King!

The Celestial Pictures DVD in the long line of their new releases of Shaw Brothers films is very nice. The widescreen 1:2.35 anamorphic picture is clean and crisp, with the optional English subtitles being almost error-free. The Dolby Digital mono Mandarin soundtrack is pretty decent too although the fighting did sound a bit stilted. There are the usual extras: picture gallery, poster, trailers, talent files, and (mercifully) no useless interviews on this one. I don't know why you would want the DVD unless you are a weird completist. Like me.

All good things come to an evil end It's definitely good to be the King!

June 13, 2003