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  • Writer's pictureGabe Powers

Beauty of Beauties Blu-ray Review


88 Films

Blu-ray Release: May 21, 2024

Video: 2.35:1/1080p/Color

Audio: Mandarin LPCM 2.0 Mono

Subtitles: English

Run Time: 155:11

Director: Li Han-hsiang


After the kingdom of Yue is defeated by the kingdom of Wu, King Goujian of Yue (Lei Zhao) takes pains to prepare for his revenge and rebuild his country. Knowing that King Fucha of Wu (Mu Chu) is lewd and lustful, he offers Xisi (Ching Chiang) to the court of Wu to serve as Fucha’s concubine with Fucha unaware that she is also a spy. She uses her charm to draw Fucha away from his office and governance, while King Goujian rallies his forces together to attempt to reclaim his lands. (From 88 Films’ official synopsis)



With limited knowledge on the subject, I’m approaching this as less of a standard review of Li Han-hsiang’s Beauty of Beauties (Mandarin: Hsi Shih, 1965) and more of a way to share what I’ve learned about Li, the Taiwanese film industry in the 1960s, and history of China while researching the film. Beauty of Beauties isn’t a very well-known film outside of its home country, nor does it seem to be considered one of Li’s most essential films by English language scholars and critics, who tend to write about Kingdom and the Beauty (1959), The Enchanting Shadow (1960), and The Magnificent Concubine (1962) – all films that were made in Hong Kong and entered in Western competitions, like Cannes and the Oscars. There simply isn’t a lot of information available about this particular movie for those of us that can’t read Chinese.


From what I can gather, Beauty of Beauties was sort of an attempt at a Taiwanese Gone with the Wind (1939) or perhaps Cleopatra (1963), not only because it was a massive historically-based melodrama, but the fact that its sheer scale and commercial ambition was a relatively new idea in the Taiwanese film industry, similar to how those film set precedent for the Hollywood epics of their eras. It was one of a collection of films meant to introduce the region to the world stage. Previously, movies were either financed by the government for local propaganda purposes or the product of under-funded independents, but the industry aimed to compete with Hong Kong during the 1960s. All of that said, I imagine Beauty of Beauties still counts as propaganda, as most glorifications of the past tend to be.



Taiwan never really had a major crossover figure, so, in the long run, it never quite achieve the same popularity as Hong Kong outside of Asia, but it’s probably important to note that Li was making melodramas, not martial arts movies, so it’s not entirely fair to compare him to the likes of Cheh Chang, Jackie Chan, or John Woo. There are some large scale scenes of horses thundering across fields followed by hundreds of extras, but none of the balletic violence wuxia movies center upon. To belabor the point, Li did have a contemporary in King Hu, who also left the Hong Kong super-studio Shaw Brothers to make (comparatively) big budget epics in Taiwan. Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1971), both wuxia dramas, managed to grow in worldwide acclaim over the decades, while the vast majority of Li’s films have never been released on North American home video.


As someone whose knowledge of greater East Asian history is informed almost exclusively by movies (I know, I know…), Beauty of Beauties is interesting to me as it covers a truly ancient period in the region’s history. The popular Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese period pictures I’ve seen tend to take place during either the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 CE), a crosssection of the Jin and Qing Dynasties (1616-1912 CE), or the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945 CE). The key exception on my personal watch list is probably Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002), which takes place during the Qin Dynasty between 221 and 206 BCE. Beauty of Beauties is set during the Warring States Period that occurred during the lead-up to Qin Shi Huang’s reign in 475-221 BCE. For my own perspective, that’s during the reign of Alexander the Great and more than a hundred of years before the birth of Cleopatra (herself a legendary figure with whom Xisi has more than a little in common).



While the popularity of The Matrix (1999) and Jackie Chan re-issues helped prime American audiences for a minor Hong Kong takeover, culminating in Ang Lee’s Hollywood-backed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), what was often overlooked was that Lee himself was perhaps even more inspired by Taiwanese epics, like Beauty of Beauties, than he was by Hong Kong’s elaborate action excess (noting that I’ve never read an interview where Lee mentioned Beauty of Beauties, specifically). More recently, this brand of sleek, sweeping period melodrama has grown popular worldwide via subscription services streaming Chinese soap operas, including some even I’ve heard of, like The King’s Women (2017), Empresses in the Palace (2011), and The Rebel Princess (2021).


Content warning: There is a scene towards the end of the film where a cow is sacrificed and its blood drained for a ceremony.


Bibliography:

  • Hsi Hsih: The Beauty of Beauties (1965): The Grand Mirage of Taiwanese Cinema by James N. Udden, from Thirty-two New Takes on Taiwan Cinema (University of Michigan Press, 2022) – This book was way out of my price range, so thank you to whoever uploaded pertinent information to my review as a sample.



Video

It's probably not a surprise to say that Beauty of Beauties has never been released on North American or European home video. As far as I can tell, it hasn’t been released on digital video anywhere, but, given its pedigree, there must be at least a Taiwanese DVD out there somewhere. This Blu-ray debut comes with a warning about the condition of the original film. The restoration presented here was commissioned by the Taiwan Ministry of Culture and completed by the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute (TFAI) in 2021. A 35mm low contrast negative was scanned in 4K resolution and ‘automatic restoration’ software was applied to fix obvious artifacts and stabilize the image. Then, apparently (the wording is a little strange), an additional frame-by-frame restoration was carried out to both fix additional errors and artifacts caused by the automatic restoration.


It’s an uneven transfer, but, when it shines, it looks fantastic, especially considering everything that went into the restoration. Colors are rich and eclectic, aside from occasional white overload and a handful of dingy shots. Some of the skies skew too teal and some of the skin tones too pink, but, on the whole, the color timing is pretty natural. I’m more suspicious of the inconsistent grain qualities, simply because I’m suspicious of the AI restoration process overcorrecting noise. Fortunately, there aren’t any waxy or overly-smoothed shots, just occasional inconsistencies and a slightly artificial quality that I might not have even noticed, had I not been told it was fixed-up using AI software. Everything also looks better in motion than in still. Be aware of anamorphic lens effects, which can appear like warped footage, but are a part of the original material.


Beauty of Beauties was originally released in two parts, then, at some point, edited down for a single movie re-release. I can’t find an official two-part runtime (some people are claiming 220 minutes) but this disc’s 154-minute duration more or less matches the runtime for the single movie re-release (this is backed up by the extras on this disc). As I understand it – and this is based on various forum and blog posts, not hard facts from 88 Films or TFAI – TFAI may have had access to print materials that included the deleted footage, but opted not to reinsert it. This might account for the disc’s several month delay. I had assumed that 88 Films was putting extra effort into the restoration, but perhaps they were considering the possibility of an extended composite cut.



Audio

Beauty of Beauties is presented in uncompressed LPCM mono and its original Mandarin. Not surprisingly, the audio was also in rough shape, though neither the TFAI or 88 Films mentions what went into restoring the tracks. The sound floor is set too high, muffling atmospheric elements and squeezing some of the quieter performances. Chow Lan-ping’s score is a nice exception and is consistently rich and warm. The music mostly takes a Hollywood-type symphonic route, though there are also era and region appropriate songs throughout the film. At times, Beauty of Beauties takes on all pertinent aspects of a musical and this is when the track sounds its best.



Extras

  • Diamond in the Rough (22:03, HD) – Sight & Sound critic and author of BFI Film Classics: In the Mood for Love (British Film Institute, 2015) Tony Rayns discusses Li’s life and wider work, his move from mainland China to Hong Kong and then to Taiwan, the early history of Shaw Bros., the making of Beauty of Beauties, the original two-movie cut, some of what’s missing from the single movie version seen here, and the fact that the film was only really successful within Taiwan, ultimately resulting in the closing of the studio and Li’s return to Hong Kong.

  • Restoration before & after comparison featurette (5:39, HD)

  • Trailer



The images on this page are taken from the BDs and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.

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