The story essentially follows a Chinese Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) and his family, including his three sons and his scheming wife (Gong Li). The Emperor is trying to poison his wife, while she is in love with the Emperor's oldest son. The oldest son is in love with the doctor's daughter, and he is also the product of a previous marriage. To keep things short, let's just say all the characters are having affairs and plotting behind each other's backs in a storyline that is less Tang dynasty and more 1980's soap opera Dynasty.
As you would expect from Yimou, the costumes and sets in this movie look incredible. The colours are breathtaking and fill every inch of the screen, to the point where you will probably miss some of the action in the first five minutes because you are so busy drinking in the sumptuous feast for the eyes. After that, however, you will quickly adjust to the incredible visuals, and from then on barely notice them. I am sure the impact would have been greater if the costumes and sets weren't so consistently wonderful throughout and instead saved for a few dramatic sequences.
Once the first few minutes have passed and you have been desensitised to the incredible imagery, you'll probably become aware that you're a bit bored. Certainly by the half hour mark you will start to realise that very little is going to happen in this film, other than conversations, political manoeuvring and the occasional token sword fight.
Things pick up towards the end, with plenty more action that is completely overblown and fantastical, but even this cannot make up for the predictability, the disappointing plot and the ninety minutes of boredom that has gone before it.
The performances from Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat put the other actors to shame, but the fact is, without a strong storyline, none of this film's strengths can save it from being a massive disappointment. If you're after a film like this that doesn't disappoint, you should probably try out Kurasawa's Ran.