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All the King's Men (1983)
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by Jay Seaver

"A king comes apart as King puts it together."
4 stars

Palace intrigue in old China... A secret mission... A master thief. All the ingredients for a martial arts epic, except, well, no, that's not what this is at all. Period melodrama? Closer, but it's really more of a dry black comedy.

It's the 10th century BC, the emperor (Tien Feng) is not well, and the medicines he is receiving from con artist "Immortal Li" are in reality only making him worse. There is a man in a nearby kingdom, "Divine Physician" Chang Po-chao, whom it's said could cure his epilepsy, but the only way to bribe the head of the border guard is with a new work by painter Wei Yu-pi. He, meanwhile, wishes to be paid in jade, in fact with a specific piece, which requires a thief. But Ting Yu-yu, the best in the area, claims to be retired, though his daughter Li-ting (Cheng Pei-pei) seems enthusiastic. And for the sake of secrecy, the archivists originally sent to recruit Chang don't even know it's on behalf of the emperor!

There are other things going on as well, but All the King's Men ("Tian xia di yi" in Mandarin) is basically a slowly-rolling snowball of a comedy, picking up characters and entanglements until it's got enough momentum to crush anything in its path. It's not necessarily the type that announces itself as such, though; where a lot of movies of that ilk will pick up a broadly-played fool and a great deal of slapstick at some point, this one continues to work bureaucratic slight of hand almost right to the end. It's a comedy of manners that seldom goes for the really big laughs to punctuate its steady stream of little ones. It could probably use more outright farce, actually, but it's at least not so dialogue-dependent that those of us who don't speak the language are trying to squeeze the gags out of subtitles.

In fact, it's often played straight enough that one can watch it as an old-fashioned fable or drama - even though a great deal of time is spent on the increasingly complex machinations necessary to get Chang back to the palace, what's going on there is taken fairly seriously - an unstable emperor can lead to war in more than one way or embolden others seeking power. Director King Hu handles this with a light touch, keeping the audience from having to constantly adjust as the two threads criss-crooss, but also heightening the absurdity of the comic segments - that the court can't just go out and do something this important says something about the fears of speaking truth to power and displaying weakness.

With all that's going on, it's interesting that Tien Feng winds up anchoring the movie, even though in a lot of ways the Emperor is the one that actually does the least. He's actually kind of fantastic, as it turns out. He start from the basic template of a ruler who is probably something of a not-that-bright figurehead (but doesn't recognize that he's either half of that description) and is kind of funny in how puffed-up and foolish the Emperor can seem, but he adds in a genuinely scary streak of paranoia along with a tragic side where the drugs and uncertainty really do seem to be draining him. The rest of the ensemble is quite good as well, though few have a character that is nearly so multifaceted; Cheng Pei-pei is a standout in a relatively small role as a would-be thief that injects some physicality and energy into the movie's second half.

It can use that; while King Hu made his name with wuxia movies , he'd turned more toward internal action by the time he made this picture. He's still got a good eye for composing a scene, and while he doesn't exactly attack comedy the way he would a swordfight, he does get that it's a collaborative art - a pair working in sync is much better than cutting between two people, even if they are funny on their own. He also does a fine job of telling his story with clarity and economy, not burdening the audience with too many words and finding a straight line between the start and end of the story without seeming like he's oversimplifying things.

"All the King's Men" is not as well-known as Hu's action movies, and in some ways it is a step or two below them. It is impressive in its way nevertheless - a sly, understated comedy in a genre and setting that can default to serious or overdone.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=24944&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/21/13 20:04:12
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Directed by
  King Hu

Written by
  King Hu
  Nien-chen Wu
  Hsiao Yeh

  Feng Tien
  Ming Lei
  Bao-yun Tang
  Pei Pei Cheng
  Tai-ching Tsui

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