I never thought I’d say this, not in a million years, but here it is: with Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou has become the George Lucas of “wuxia” cinema, and I mean that in both the good and bad ways.
But mostly the bad ways.
There’s no question that, by year’s end, Curse of the Golden Flower will have been the most opulent, visually astonishing film to grace movie theatres in 2007. Compared to the elaborate set designs and costumes that fill every single scene here, Zhang’s previous period pieces — 2002’s Hero and 2004’s House Of Flying Daggers — look like shabby high school productions. Thanks to the incredibly elaborate costumes and stunning sets, each frame of Curse of the Golden Flower is awash with every color of the rainbow, so vibrant that it’s almost blinding.
Unfortunately, like those Star Wars prequels, visual splendor is about all that Curse of the Golden Flower has going for it. And even the visuals ultimately fail to satisfy thanks to the shallow characters, threadbare-yet-still ponderous plot, and lumbering execution — qualities that I never thought I’d use to describe a Zhang Yimou film.
Set in the late 10th century, during China’s Tang Dynasty, Curse of the Golden Flower follows the complex and tragic power struggles that occur within the Forbidden City.
The Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat), who has just returned in time for the annual Chrysanthemum Festival, rules both the palace and his family with an iron fist and unpredictable will. The Empress (Gong Li) chafes under the Emperor’s disdainful, patronizing authority, as their marriage is a purely political one. What’s more, she’s afflicted with a strange ailment that, despite the constant attention of her husband’s physician, has suddenly grown worse.
The Emperor’s three sons by his previous wife only add to the strife. The oldest son, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), is in line to succeed his father, though he’s little in the way of a ruler. He yearns to be free of the palace and his father’s rule, as well as the attention of the Empress, with whom he has had an illicit affair. The middle son, Jai (Jay Chou), seems to be the Emperor’s favorite, having served many years in the military, but his close relationship with the Empress clouds his loyalties. The youngest son, Yu (Qin Junjie), is on the cusp of manhood, and seems completely oblivious to all of the familial turmoil surrounding him.
As the Chrysanthemum Festival approaches, and the multitudes of palace staff busy themselves with the preparations, the pressure and hatred continues to heat up within the family’s quarter — so much so, it’s amazing that it doesn’t melt the gold from the walls. The Empress’ condition continues to worsen until a mysterious spy confirms her worst suspicions: the Emperor has slowly been poisoning her, ostensibly so that he can remove her influence from the palace and gain her family’s wealth and power.
Realizing her back is up against the wall, the Empress begins to plot her move against the seemingly omnipresent Emperor, whose eyes, ears, and assassins are in every corner of the country. But what of the princes? Who will side with her, and who will betray her? And who is the mysterious woman who alerted her to the poison?
At first glance, Curse of the Golden Flower looks to be overflowing with great dramatic potential, what with all of the undertones of plotting, scheming, family drama, troubled youth, and whatnot. It’s practically Shakespearean in a way. But Shakespeare this most clearly isn’t.
It’s a shame that Zhang, who has given us films with such strong, evocative stories and memorable characters in the past, has basically lost it in his latest film. Throughout my viewing of Curse of the Golden Flower, I was struck again and again by the simple fact that I didn’t give one whit about any of the characters and their plight. Noone here is sympathetic; the Emperor is a cold-hearted bastard, the Empress a stone-cold bitch, and the princes are bumbling, ineffective, petulant, and naïve.
I’d like to give Zhang the benefit of the doubt and think that he was trying to make a movie about absolute power and how it corrupts absolutely, or how deceit and treachery can fell even the seemingly noblest of families (in one ironic scene, the Emperor enforces his rule by claiming that the royal family must set an example for the rest of the kingdom).
But what’s most galling is there’s never a sense of loss even as everything begins its obvious descent into hell. In order for a tragedy to be truly tragic and affecting, there needs to be that sensation of loss — of good and noble characters losing their innocence, of the best intentions going awry.
However, as Curse of the Golden Flower enters its final act after nearly 90 minutes or so of glacial, portentous build-up and exposition, it becomes painfully obvious that the movie is going to be little more than petty, despicable characters bathing the courtyard with one another’s blood. Which, when captured by Zhang’s skillful lens, might look awfully pretty, but it leaves little of substance for the heart, mind, and soul.
By the time the smoke clears, the floors are washed clean of blood, and the survivors of the family strife gather together for the dénouement, it becomes readily apparent that Zhang’s dramatization of such classic themes as deceit and treachery have been delivered only in the most workmanlike of manners, and with none of the subtlety, elegance, artistry, and compassion that has marked so much of Zhang’s filmography.
By comparison, even Hero’s ostensible villain, the emperor of Qin, is given a few moments of humanity and compassion. Moments where his tyrannical veneer is pushed aside to reveal his doubts and fears, allowing room for perhaps even a moment of enlightenment. Unfortunately, no such subtle, redeeming moments exist in Curse of the Golden Flower, moments which would have deepened and strengthened the movie.
Adding further insult is the way in which such a stellar cast is wasted. Seriously, how can one screw up with both Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li — two nigh-legendary actors — filling the screen? Gong’s Empress is, as I said before, little more than an ice statue given to fits of scowling and shaking (though, in her defense, she is being poisoned). And it’s difficult to see how Chow’s Emperor is supposed to elicit any fear whatsoever. Even when he’s whipping a man to death, he still looks like a preening buffoon. As for the actors portraying the princes, they’re so innocuous as to be non-existent.
Given Zhang’s track record up until now, it’s understandable that some might go into Curse of the Golden Flower hoping to see more of the thrilling action sequences that were such a hallmark of Hero and, to a lesser extent, House Of Flying Daggers. The movie is also disappointing in that regard, even though Ching Siu-Tung is once again handling the choreography.
There are a couple of interesting set pieces, such as when a group of the Emperor’s assassins swoop down into a mountain fort. There is, however, nothing that comes close to the thrilling fight between Jet Li and Donnie Yen or Zhang Ziyi’s fight in the bamboo forest.
The film is also surprisingly bloody, so much so that my wife had to turn away at a few points. But the violence is excessive in the truest sense of the word; there’s no point to it, nor again, any sense of loss (because we don’t care about those being killed). Instead, it grows increasingly tedious and preposterous. Suspension of disbelief is a given with the wuxia genre, but it’s usually easy to do because the visuals and story are so thrilling. Here, the disbelief never even gets off the ground.
At this point, I need to stop the review lest it just become a checklist of everything I dislike about the movie (yes, there’s more).
My frustration primarily stems from the fact that so much talent — on both sides of the camera — is so obviously squandered in nearly every scene of the film. All I can say is that I hope the rumors are true and that this is the last wuxia film Zhang makes. His first one was brilliant, his second, good but not as good as the first, and now, Curse of the Golden Flower is — well, you get the idea. Hopefully, Zhang has got the wuxia bug out of his system and has become tired of the excess and license that comes with making such big-budget epics, and instead, returns to the smaller, more character-driven pieces that established him as such a renowned director.