Kawashima Yoshiko (1990)

Directed by: Eddie Fong
Written by: Lillian Lee
Producer: Teddy Robin
Starring: Anita Mui, Derek Yee, Patrick Tse, Ida Chan, Lawrence Ng, Ken Lo & Andy Lau

Buy the DVD at:

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1991:
Best Supporting Actor (Derek Yee)
Best Cinematography (Jingle Ma)
Best Art Direction (Eddie Mok & Fang Ying)

Nomination at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 1990:
Best Supporting Actor (Andy Lau)

Despite having his Shaw Brother's film When Tat Fu Was Young (aka Cherry Blossoms) taken away from him (1*), Eddie Fong turned to history once more, bringing Lillian Lee's (writer of Rouge and Temptation Of A Monk) script about Kawashima Yoshiko (played by Anita Mui) to life. A real life person that was also seen in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor where actress Maggie Han inhabited the role, it's always better to let some educated folks speak for me briefly since we are dealing with history here so Wikipedia, take it away:

"Kawashima Yoshiko was a Manchu princess brought up as a Japanese and executed as a Japanese spy by the Kuomintang after the Second Sino-Japanese War. Originally named Aisin Gioro Xianyu with the courtesy name Dongzhen (literally meaning East Jewel).

She was born as the 14th daughter to Shanqi, the 10th hereditary of Prince Su of the Manchu imperial family. Given to a Japanese Ronin Naniwa Kawashima as an adopted daughter after the Xinhai Revolution by Prince Su, she had been renamed as Kawashima Yoshiko, receiving education in Japan. When she was 17, she began wearing menswear after failing an attempt at suicide. According to one theory, the reason why she began wearing menswear is said that she had been raped by her foster father."

So we're now feeling cheery, educated and those of you familiar with The Last Emperor will know that the transition to Japan for Kawashima happened at the time of the events showing Emperor Pu Yi's abdication and dismissal from The Forbidden City. Thoroughly fitting to have Anita Mui for the role in this 1990 Hong Kong production it certainly is as Eastern Jewel carried with her that description of being "strikingly attractive", "half tom-boy, half heroine" and no disrespect to the late Mui, but that's just a great, big fit if I ever saw one. But being terrific is a wasted choice for this one as it's either that director Eddie Fong had his vision once again chopped up or that his choice of going short and minor in scale on us simply was the wrong choice for Kawashima Yoshiko.

Regardless, it's a good idea to prep with backup in the form of Bertolucci's film (and Wikipedia) for a view from Emperor Pu Yi's eyes as he's only being mentioned in Fong's film. Obviously not out to remake but to tell a character story that will eventually intersect with familiar aspects in The Last Emperor (the relationship with Pu Yi's wife Wan Jing for instance, played by Joan Chen in 1987 and now by Ida Chan), the film moves at the pace of a speeding freight train as it tries to fit in decades of history in a mere 90 minutes and it's a blessing to have Anita Mui on board in order for us to have time to feel anything. Because partly, Kawashima Yoshiko is a character you at one point do feel very much for.

Forced to go to Japan, adopt a new lifestyle and suffocating her attempts at rebellion that in truth was a freedom attempt, she wasn't imported if you will to feel free but to be molded. After critical events such as the rape at the hands of her foster father and subsequent marriage to a Mongolian prince, the character lets go, unwillingly. In a matter of minutes, history is being ticked off and while anyone can do that, at least Fong has attempted to examine the small confines his lead character finds herself in in actuality.

Because for all the detailed art direction and striking Jingle Ma cinematography, the film remains very stage bound by choice with only select epic shots and intercutting of archive footage to open up the world. Fong thinks correctly here as the choice counterbalances the mentioned 1987 epic but he can't back it up with a thorough examination. We get historical snapshots and the Kawashima Yoshiko character is treated in the same manner. It is a bit captivating, and it's again thanks to Anita Mui who can quickly reveal so much about the inner, female desire of the character when in either emotional mode or in a cold-hearted one. There's some absolutely awe inspiring directed scenes towards the end where Kawashima has fallen from grace and her attempt at putting on make-up again using what she has in the prison definitely does hurt to watch.

Eddie Fong's thoughts boils down to presenting history as it was but injecting ideas of blurred lines of who's running history correctly and how easily disillusioned you can feel when viewing each side's arguments (an arc that's very true for Andy Lau's well-performed character). However it's too little too late to begin making a fine movie during the last 5 minutes when you've sprinted through the other crucial build-up's towards those moments. Historically relevant and something to watch after The Last Emperor it might be but you can probably read up on the perspective the character of Kawashima Yoshiko brought rather than watching the short feature of her life.

The DVD:

Universe presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.76:1 approximately. A very clean print with at times fine colours and decent sharpness, a purple tint accompanying the transfer at times does seem fairly out of place. A surprisingly solid presentation nonetheless.

Most of the performers seemingly speaks Cantonese and the post-synched Dolby Digital 2.0 track feels suitable in that regard. This was probably a production that was looking for as much of an authentic feel language-wise as any other Hollywood flick of its kind then. The Mandarin dub is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 only. Both tracks presents dialogue, music and effects in a clear manner.

The English subtitles are of high quality throughout with only a few spelling errors occurring. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Standard special features pop up, starting with Star's Files for actors Andy Lau and Anita Mui, both of which are fairly informative but short. Trailers for Kawashima Yoshiko, Last Blood, Sworn Brothers and City Kids also appear.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

(1) Without Fong's consent, the movie was re-edited when released by Golden Harvest in 1987 and the studio pushed the rather minute Chow Yun-Fat role to the forefront in their advertising.