Who's in It:
Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat
The Basics: Director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) takes on the 10th-century Tang Dynasty, where everyone in the Imperial Palace is going nuts and trying to kill each other. I think the fact that they mostly succeed is meant to make you feel supertragic. And I would very much feel that way if this movie were only a little less hilarious.
What's the Deal? Dig this: The Emperor (Yun-Fat) hates the Empress (Li). He's trying to poison her with a fungus that causes insanity, profuse sweating and heaving cleavage. Meanwhile, she's having an affair with her eldest son, but he's not really her son, because there was another wife before the Empress, one who got kicked to the curb. That woman lurks in the palace seeking revenge, and her own daughter is also having an affair with the eldest son, who is, yes, her brother. The other two sons wind up as part of a giant civil war on the outside and the inside. Then comes the black-cloaked imperial S.W.A.T. team of flying swordsmen they're sort of like stab-happy sprinkles on a cupcake of crazy. What I'm trying to say is that a lot goes down in this movie none of it dull.
Remember, Good and Bad are Outdated, Binary Concepts: You can connect the dots from Hamlet to a Mandarin-language episode of the soap opera Passions staged by a brain-damaged and neon-clad troupe of drag queens in about three moves. So, no, it's not good in the way you're hoping or in the way that this director's other films earn their applause. It's way more stupid fun than that.
A Laptop Full of Civil War: I kind of wish that they hadn't gone the Lord of the Rings route with the battle scenes, because you can tell it's just a bunch of animated tiny people. A movie this nuts demands a genuine cast of thousands, not a million duplicated warriors that I could roll up into a big ball if I were playing Katamari Damacy with them.