Curse of the Golden Flower
2006, R, 114 min. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Liu Ye, Chen Jin, Ni Dahong, Li Man, Qin Junjie.
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Jan. 12, 2007
Chinese royal-family drama Curse of the Golden Flower is set in the decadent last days of the Later Tang Dynasty, a time, apparently, when no interior-design expense was spared and even the most insignificant daily activities were accompanied by a gong soundtrack. The emperor (Chow), a provincial usurper presiding over a decaying era, relies on elaborate ceremonies to cover up the dysfunction and precariousness of his rule, and inside his imperial palace, court intrigue is being taken to new heights of muted animosity, with him and his empress (Gong) conspiring against each other and their three sons and various courtiers all playing their parts in an elaborate game of moves and countermoves. It seems the empress has been carrying on an affair with her stepson, Crown Prince Wan (Liu), and is now being slowly poisoned by her husband for her sins, a fate she’s aware of but, due to the preponderance of witnesses to her daily sipping ceremonies, is unable to do much about. So, enlisting the help of her middle son, Prince Jai (Chou) – the son closest to what remains of the emperor’s heart – she orchestrates a military coup to take place on the eve of Chrysanthemum Festival, an ornate ceremony of flowers and choral singing that provides director Zhang and his crew the opportunity to create battle scenes of surpassing cinematic grandeur and showy juxtaposition: Few things, it turns out, go so well together as blood and chrysanthemums. Zhang, a legend in China with several international successes to his name – including Hero and House of Flying Daggers – once again raises the bar for production design and fight choreography with Curse of the Golden Flower. No inch of the palace’s labyrinth of hallways, curtains, and bedchambers goes ungilded, and no moment of the film’s many fight scenes is less than balletic: To question that this movie is a visual feast would be an act of real cynicism. But as the old Chinese proverb goes, “Gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside,” and just as the emperor’s own misrule is shrouded in ceremony, so too is the rather emotionally insignificant melodrama at the center of Curse of the Golden Flower given only minimal cover from scrutiny by Zhang’s visual virtuosity, and that only for a while. Halfway through the lengthy final battle sequence – which features a CGI cast of thousands – one can’t help but feel that the movie, like the palace it’s filmed in and the family who resides there, is an edifice built out of mist: One strong burst of skepticism, and the whole lovely thing will vanish into the ether.