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Curse of the Golden Flower

(left) Jay Chou, and (right) Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat

Chinese: 滿城盡帶黃金甲
Year: 2006  
Director: Zhang Yimou
Producer: Bill Kong, Zhang Weiping, Zhang Yimou
Writer: Wu Nan, Bian Zhihong, Zhang Yimou, Cao Yu (original play)
Action: Ching Siu-Tung
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Liu Ye, Ni Dahong, Chen Jin, Li Man, Qin Junjie
The Skinny:

Beautifully made and dramatically sound, Zhang Yimou's latest costume epic rides overdone histrionics, garish production design and general extravagance to deliver a gripping Tang Dynasty-era melodrama. It's all a bit much, but it's also quite good.

by Kozo:

It's pretty and it's also pretty good. The Curse of Costume Epics Made for Western Consumption™ gets stymied by Zhang Yimou's fittingly opulent Curse of the Golden Flower. The famed Chinese director, who last went westward with 2004's overwrought and somewhat silly House of Flying Daggers, assembles a name-heavy cast for this adaptation of famed dramatist Cao Yu's play Thunderstorm. Zhang Yimou and writers Wu Nan and Bian Zhihong transplant Cao Yu's 1930's era play to Tang Dynasty-era China, replacing the messed-up family of Cao's original with a royal (and royally) messed-up version, who find their relationships getting torn to shreds right on the eve of the Chongyang Festival (called the "Chrysanthemum Festival" in the subtitles). Throw in your requisite martial arts, some CGI armies, and more faux gold production design than is probably necessary and you have this year's most entertaining and overdone melodrama.

Chow Yun-Fat is the patriarch of the film's messed-up family unit, only he isn't just an upper class snob with gobs of dough like in Cao Yu's original play. Chow is Emperor Ping, a powerful man who's built a successful empire, and he apparently aims to enjoy it. Aside from lording over thousands of subjects, the Emperor's palace is gold-encrusted and ultra-opulent, a deliberate and even disgusting monument to one man's obsession with status and appearance. When the man first appears, he summons his second son, Prince Jie (Jay Chou), to his quarters for an impromptu duel, whereupon he tells the kid that he's given him everything that he has, and that he must never, ever try to take more without permission. The message is obvious: don't turn on me, kid, or suffer the consequences. Jie promises that he won't, but by the end of the film, circumstances have arisen that cause Jie to go back on his word. But the Emperor isn't lying to Jie: the kid is in for a tough lesson. So is the audience.

Things kick off with the revelation that the Emperor's second wife, Empress Phoenix (Gong Li in various cleavage-enhancing outfits), is being slowly killed. The Imperial Physician (Ni Dahong) has instructed his daughter, Chen (Li Man, also amping her décolletage), to spike the Empress' hourly anemia medicine with a poison that will slowly turn her into a half-wit. The chief mastermind to this plot is of course the Emperor, who's trying to off his buxom wife presumably because of her long-standing affair with with the Emperor's number one son Xiang (Liu Ye), who is thankfully not the Empress' biological son. In turn, the Empress would like Xiang's help to overthrow the Emperor, but he's a sniveling, useless sort, meaning he lacks the guts to go through with a coup.

However, that's not the only rotten thing happening in the state of Denmark; Xiang is also carrying on an affair with Chen, much to the Empress' disapproval, and it's unknown if the Emperor even knows about it. The Emperor has his own secrets involving his first wife, and youngest son Cheng (Qin Junjie) mopes around looking annoyed because everyone is too busy scheming and plotting to pay him any mind. The lone stalwart person in all of this is Jie, who seemingly desires family harmony. However, the deal breaker for Jie may be that his father is deliberately attempting to turn his mother into a vegetable. The Empress is all-too-aware of this leverage, but the clock is ticking on her remaining sanity. With the Chongyang festival drawing close, will she be able to entice Jie to pull off the planned coup against her crappy husband? And will the Emperor catch on before its too late?

Curse of the Golden Flower is chockfull of deadly grudges and overwrought personal politics. This is incredibly melodramatic stuff; incest, murder, patricide, and other Korean drama-worthy plotlines are offered up in the film's juicy screenplay, which sometimes seems to be as trashy as it is classy. The overdone histrionics from the cast only add to the fun, with three of the four leads overacting admirably (the lone exception is Jay Chou, who's a bit out of his depth here). Gong Li strides around the palace in an incredibly haughty manner, sweating wildly and fixing everyone who crosses her path with withering gazes. Chow Yun-Fat is powerfully smug as the Emperor, and uses his tremendous screen charisma to ooze smarm instead of the patented Chow Yun-Fat charm. Liu Ye perfectly embodies Xiang with a suitably over-the-top display of pathetic weakness. The production design and Shigeru Umebayashi's bombastic score are the icing on the cake of this exercise in excess. Curse of the Golden Flower could be the year's most overdone and potentially alienating motion picture. Everything is too beautiful and too perfectly arranged, which is usually where we knock a film for being too manufactured.

Not this time. It's true that the look and feel of Curse of the Golden Flower is manufactured to egregious effect, but there are actually reasons behind all the insane artifice. The Ancient Chinese glitz and glamour traps some characters; the Empress may know that she's being poisoned, but her excessive amount of attendants, the exact timekeeping (a servant will nasally intone the time every hour), and the Emperor's steel grip on the household serve to suffocate her, making deception and a planned coup her only way out. The artificial beauty is also a part of the Emperor's perfectly arranged show of power. His family and empire are his to command, and they're all supposed to be as lovely and docile as the inanimate finery that makes up his overly ornate surroundings. But it's all plainly artificial, both to the audience and to the characters in the film. Beneath the beauty lies plenty of ugliness, and the Emperor behaves in a cunning, villainous way because he's trying to preserve the artificially created beauty of his lofty position.

The Emperor's values are also hypocritical. When gathering his family for the Chongyang Festival, he stresses such values as filial piety, honor, and righteousness, though it's plainly obvious from minute one that these fine values are not practiced by most of the film's principal characters. That these characters are the ones in power gives Curse of the Golden Flower a suspicious, anti-Hero feel, i.e. this may not be a pro-China movie. Unlike the ultra-sympathetic King portrayed in Zhang Yimou's acclaimed 2002 film, Emperor Ping is conniving and ruthless, and seems to be behaving so terribly becauses he's corrupt and generally selfish lout who only talks a good game. In truth, he abuses his power by poisoning his wife, and then shames her into accepting the poison by pretending to show public concern. During these scenes it's easy to feel some sympathy for the put-upon Empress because she's in such a terrible position, drinking poison hourly despite the knowledge that it's really killing her.

Still, the Empress has, by definition, violated the family's values by engaging in adultery and nominal incest, meaning her suffering may not be entirely unjust. There's more afoot in Curse of the Golden Flower than a simple tale of "bad man forces family to succumb to his will until the family rightfully seeks revenge." In this film, everyone's a sinner and everyone suffers - even the Emperor, whose cooly calculating evil eventually backfires in a way that even he doesn't expect. Chow Yun-Fat gives his character a powerful confidence, but when things spin beyond his expectation, his veneer is momentarily shattered. In those moments, the Emperor becomes a tragic, and even sympathetic figure. He'll still do what he has to do, i.e. kill those who have betrayed him, but his character reveals levels not fully verbalized in the script. Despite the overt trashiness of the film's "Dallas in the Palace" storyline, there's a complexity of theme and character going on that proves fascinating.

However, the above is simply one way of looking at the Curse of the Golden Flower, which proffers extreme melodrama, sumptuous art direction, multi-layered themes, and your requisite martial arts all packaged in smashing gold lamé wrapping paper. Ching Siu-Tung manages some fine action set pieces, including an exciting ambush by the Emperor's assassins, plus the slightly unconvincing finale, which finds Jay Chou mixing it up against scores of foes while carrying a spear that may be heavier than he is. But the action is only one part of the piñata that is Curse of the Golden Flower. There's lots of stuff going on here, allowing the film to be enjoyed on numerous levels. As a trashy melodrama, the film delivers its share of campy soap opera goodness, and as an opulent epic, there's much to gawk at. But there's also well-played drama and complex themes mixed into the epic action and artifice. Cao Yu's Thunderstorm is renowned as a classic of Chinese melodrama, and Zhang Yimou and company have given the play a worthy twist with Curse of the Golden Flower.

That said, the extreme gaudiness of the whole affair may turn off more than a few audiences, and after The Banquet, a backlash against these sorts of costume epics may be in full effect. Those who subscribe to the backlash do have a legitimate beef, as Curse of the Golden Flower does exhibit much of the same artificial excess that made The Banquet seem cold and unapproachable. But there's really a lot more going on here, and Zhang Yimou should be given credit for returning to this genre again and again. This is already Zhang's third time around with big-budget martial arts extravagance, and he looks to be changing things up each time he returns, finding new and even worthy stories to tell using the genre's now overly-familiar iconography. The results may not always be Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower, but they won't always be House of Flying Daggers either. At this point, he's two out of three, so giving Zhang Yimou license to be excessive again may be more prudent than, say, throwing money at Chen Kaige for a Promise 2. Besides, sometimes excess can be good. This is one of those times. (Kozo 2006)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Edko Films
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various extras
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

images courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen