in at 144 minutes, this epic-length historical drama
is compelling in that it features a vital part of Chinese
history, but distant in that it doesn’t allow us to
emotionally connect with any of the historical figures.
Michelle Yeoh is Soong Ai-Ling, who married H. H. Kung
(Jiang Wen), the richest man in China and later the
Finance Minister to Chiang Kai-Shek (Wu Xing-Guo). Chaing
married Soong sister May-Ling (Vivian Wu), shortly before
embarking on his iron reign of China and Taiwan. The
third sister is Ching-Ling, played by Maggie Cheung,
who married Sun Yat-Sen (Winston Chao), the father of
China’s nationalist party.
Politics plays a huge part
in the film’s story. The struggle for China to gain
its identity is the backdrop for the squabbles among
the Soong siblings and their respective husbands. The
question is: who should we root for? Depending on what
political affiliation you have, different figures may
be more revered than others (if you’re a Communist then
Ching-Ling’s your gal, but if you’re a Nationalist you’d
have to go with May-Ling). The film’s point-of-view
is drastically muted, and as a result it's difficult
to find the film compelling. Sure, history matters,
but if emotion is lost in the proceedings you might
as well crack open a book.
Part of this could be attributed
to the film’s massive censorship, which featured five
months for script approval and lots of cuts to placate
the big guys in China. Considering The Return, the cuts
are politically sensible, but the film suffers ultimately.
The performances are fine, but without an emotional
anchor, the whole exercise seems to drift endlessly.
This is a good history lesson, but not a potent human
drama. (Kozo 1997)