A Film Review by James Berardinelli
Hong Kong/China, 2006 U.S. Release Date: 12/22/06 (limited) Running Length: 1:58 MPAA Classification: R (Violence) Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Lie Ye, Chen Jin, Ni Dahong, Li Man, Qin Junjie Director: Zhang Yimou Screenplay: Zhang Yimou, Wu Nan, Bian Zhihong Cinematography: Zhao Xiaoding Music: Shigeru Umebayashi U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics In Mandarin with subtitles
Curse of the Golden Flower is director Zhang Yimou's ambitious attempt to blend martial arts action with Shakespearean melodrama. It's not a perfect marriage but it offers two hours of solidly over-the-top entertainment featuring incredible visuals and powerful performances by international icons Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat. While aspects of Curse of the Golden Flower hearken back to some of Zhang's earlier films, the movie as whole is more in keeping with the style he has developed in recent years (with Hero and House of Flying Daggers). The strong elements of melodrama in the story are likely to make it more accessible to those who found those movies too action oriented.
The film is established in the 10th century during the short-lived Later Tang Dynasty. Despite the historical setting, the movie is not factual on any level, nor does it pretend to be. In fact, the primary source material for Curse of the Golden Flower's screenplay, co-written by Zhang , Wu Nan, and Bian Zhihong, is a Chinese play set in the 1930s. Zhang has re-worked the story to transport it more than a millennium back in time. There are also strong Shakespearean overtones to what transpires. It would be surprising for any literate viewer to sit through Curse of the Golden Flower and not think of Hamlet at least once.
China's royal family is in turmoil. The Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) is gradually poisoning his wife, the Empress (Gong Li), by adding a deadly fungus to her hourly anemia medicine. The Empress is sexually involved with her step-son, Crown Prince Wan (Lie Ye), who is also carrying on with Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the palace doctor. Prince Jai (Jay Chou) has returned from a long period fighting the Mongols to learn this lesson from his father: "Never take what you have not been given." The youngest son, Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), stews in a cauldron of jealousy because his brothers get all the attention. Meanwhile, the Empress learns of her husband's plans to take her life and plots an intricate plan of revenge that relies upon Jai's loyalty to her.
Those expecting Curse of the Golden Flower to replicate Hero and House of Flying Daggers in terms of style and approach will be surprised by what this movie offers. Over the course of its 120 minute running time, Curse of the Golden Flower provides a share of sumptuous visuals. The scenes in the palace with its colorful curtains and carpets are a Technicolor dream, as are the shots outside the building with a field of yellow chrysanthemums filling the courtyard. Color is one of the filmmakers' chief tools. In some circles, it has become fashionable to desaturate hues until the palette is almost black-and-white. Zhang uses the opposite approach, with reds and yellows in particular being highlighted. The material may be dark but the look is bright and gay.
There are several martial arts sequences, including an epic battle that is too obviously computer generated, but nothing to match the artistry of Zhang's previous movies. This one is more plot heavy and the strands of the story weave a tragedy that would make the Greeks proud. There's incest, betrayal, murder, poisoning, fratricide, and various other unsavory human endeavors. This isn't the kind of movie you watch when you want to feel good about the human condition. Admittedly, it goes way over the top in some areas, but that's the kind of thing most melodramas do.
Solid performances by Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat anchor the story. The other cast members, except perhaps pop star Jay Chou, who exudes screen presence, always seem to be struggling to keep up. (This includes Zhang's latest "find," Li Man.) Gong, appearing for the first time in more than a decade in a film directed by Zhang, channels elements of her character from Raise the Red Lantern. There's some of the pain, loneliness, and incipient madness of that woman in the Empress. Chow Yun Fat taps into a vein of sinister amorality. His Emperor is powerful and smart, but never likable.
Curse of the Golden Flower is a spectacle. Even during those times when the plot either doesn't make a lot of sense or becomes too contrived, the movie is too beautiful to look away from. It's enjoyable in the same way a soap opera or potboiler is enjoyable. It looks like high art, but isn't. The subtitles alone keep it from being mass entertainment in North America For those who have appreciated Zhang's work during any of the stages of his career, this makes for engaging and interesting viewing. It remains to be seen whether this is a one-off experiment or whether it represents the next direction in which his exploration of filmmaking will take him.