Curse of the Golden Flower
Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li
The latest film from “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” director Zhang Yimou successfully one-ups his already impressive resume for visual spectacle. Remember when Western audiences were blown away by the epic proportions and dazzling visual sense of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”? As great as that movie is, it’s not possible to be moved the same way after having seen the way Zhang created and shot the worlds of “Hero” and “House.” “Curse” comes close to taking the polish off those previous films in the same way, by having so masterfully outdone their lush design.
The film’s story is Shakespearean in scope and intensity. A royal family is torn apart by secrets, plots and jealousies. Ghosts from the past combine with seductions and secrets in the present to threaten the future of the kingdom. There is almost no martial-arts theatricality in the first hour or more of the film, and in the end, the violence is as much “Braveheart”-style mob scenes as orchestrated kung fu wire work. Zhang is betting that the character complications, as vivid and outsized as the absolutely amazing imperial palace ““ the same setting as “Hero” but so much more lavish ““ will hold the audience more effectively than a few extra scenes of balletic battle would.
The story of “Curse of the Golden Flower” is less epic than “Hero,” and while it has many deceptions and surprises, it is much more linear than that earlier film. “Curse” focuses entirely on the the family of a Tang Dynasty emperor. We’re told offhandedly midway through the film that Chow Yun-Fat rose from a mid-level army post to seize the throne, and that points to the ruthlessness we see in his character in the film. His wife, Gong Li, is his principal foe and the character through which we see the film. It’s tough to say she’s our protagonist, since there’s a lot about her that isn’t exactly heroic. She is trapped by duty, circumstance and an autocratic husband who doesn’t seem to love her very much, and in her desperate situation, we might forgive her certain things. Or not ““ the film doesn’t seem eager to have us judge anyone.
The story, by being so caught up in domestic drama, seems more over-the-top than Zhang’s previous stories, with critics often calling it a soap opera plot. But really, are the lusts, hatreds and machinations of a twisted and rich family any more melodramatic that the clever face off of Jet Li and his emperor in “Hero”? And “House” covered about a year’s worth of soap opera ups, downs and reversals. No one comes to period Chinese martial arts movies looking to have the angst of modern suburban life explored with a harrowing eye for the detailed horror of the small-town PTA meeting. Granted, they might not specifically come for domestic intrigue that includes murder plots, slow-acting death traps, incest and coordinated subterfuge, but who’s gonna object?
Politically, the film is reminiscent of “Hero” in that it touches on the question of one arguably righteous figure challenging the state and seeking to overthrow rule that may be tyrannical. Produced in China, where lone individuals protesting tyranny tend to be met with tanks and a trip to the gulag, the film is ambiguous in its stand. While we are spared the perfectly neat and satisfying happy ending that Hollywood prefers, it is a little disturbing to contemplate the film through the lens of current Chinese politics. However, “Hero” was much more about politics and justice and closed with a powerful image that still managed to speak, however tragically, to values we might share in the West. The fight in “Curse” is not about just rule, it’s about domestic struggle — and it is explicitly stated as such. Gong Li is seeking to save herself, not her nation, and so the film manages to sidestep a full consideration of, say, the role of individualism versus totalitarian control.
But never mind that, what about the action scenes?
There’s a lot of people running around in heavy armor, which is not something you see in the wire-rigged martial arts films we’re most used to. Which explains why there’s a lot less of that stylized, utterly unbelievable hand-to-hand combat here. Most of the violence here involves weapons meant to kill, not fancy footwork. And there is virtually no action that couldn’t conceivably be performed by a real human of amazing martial arts prowess ““ no dancing across bamboo treetops here.
But there’s still a lot of dazzle for the dollar, and more than any of Zhang’s previous spectaculars, this is a film that must be seen on the big screen. A subtitled period piece, even one this good, is not likely to be in theaters long, but it’s worth making the effort to catch it. If you wait for the DVD, you’ll still enjoy a fine cast ““ Gong Li is excellent, as usual, and Chow Yun-Fat is underused in a way that makes all his scenes, despite the reserve of his performance, compelling. But you’ll spend a lot of your time wondering how amazing this must’ve looked on a big screen.