Zhang Yimou’s post-Crouching Tiger reinvention of himself as the foremost maker of prestige kung fu flicks continues apace with Curse of the Golden Flower, a royal melodrama that mixes the spectacular visuals and national myth-mining of his more recent House of Flying Daggers and Hero with the dramatic focus and claustrophobic settings of his Raise the Red Lantern.
Like House, it is an almost hypnotically gorgeous-looking film, one that demands not only to be seen on the big screen, but that you not look away from that screen for a second (And no, I don’t think I’m exaggerating).
It’s set in the tenth-century Forbidden City, seat of power to the Chinese emperor. Essentially, it’s a palace the size of a city, with so many servants (all of whom are played by beautiful actors and actresses) and so much intricate set dressing (every scene positively drips with bling) that it makes the Versailles of Marie Antoinette look modest; if Sofia Coppola’s movie seemed to be set in a castle made entirely out of petit fours, Curse seems to be set in a city made out of repurposed Faberge eggs.
The story, based on a play by Cao Yu, is actually a rather small one in some ways, involving only a few characters and still fewer settings. But it’s also one that involves rather big motivations, events and moments, and, by the final reel, whole armies of followers working, fighting and dying on behalf of each of the principals. This mixture of huge melodrama and small central cast perhaps betrays its roots as a piece of theater, and indeed it’s hard to watch without thinking of Greek tragedies and Shakespeare (King Lear and Macbeth, particularly for the latter’s lady, spring most immediately to mind).
Chow Yun Fat plays the emperor of China (and really, who needs anything more than that to recommend a film to them?), sporting long hair, an imperious goatee and, when we first meet him, a set of golden armor that encases him like a shell of jewelry. (Chowiphiles take note: The star gets a sweet scene in which the power of his self-righteous anger blows off his robe and hairpiece, which leads into the most expensive belt-whooping in film history).
The emperor has three sons, one of which he’s taken off to war with him (Jay Chou), another (Liu Ye) who’s stayed at home and had one torrid affair with his step-mother and another with a servant (I guess they don’t call it the Forbidden City for nothing. Hey-oh!), and a third who’s a bit of a momma’s boy (Junjie Qin).
In this case, momma is Gong Li (speaking of hypnotically gorgeous…), the Empress Phoenix, married to the emperor for political reasons, though in their hearts they each love another. To rid himself of her, the emperor has been slowly poisoning her with a brew meant to either render her an imbecile or insane. The translation makes the effects vague, and equivocates between the two—a shame, since, as the move progresses, the empress’ enemies increasingly accuse her of madness, though Sony Pictures Classics’ subtitles make it unclear if those same enemies have also caused that madness in her or not.
As a piece of filmmaking, it’s a flat-out beautiful piece of work, the perfect combination of strong talent and high budget yielding great results. As a drama, it’s well acted and occasionally startling. As a kung fu movie, it’s rather low on kung fu, but then, it’s not a wuxia fantasy like Hero or House, despite the rather deceptive trailer marketing it as such. In fact, when the first blows are traded between a prince and a masked woman, it comes as something of a surprise, seemingly out of place.
But there is still action aplenty, all of it as beautifully orchestrated as everything else in the film (Ching Siu-Tung, who worked with Yimou on his wuxia films and has plenty of impressive action movies in his filmography, choreographs). Most striking is perhaps a scene in which the emperor and a son spar with swords, sparks flying from the grinding blades, and playing off the engraved dragons and lions in their armor, although as the film wears on, battles come more and more frequently. The best seem to involve the emperor’s assassins, ninjas with scythe-shaped blades and deadly grappling hooks which make them meta-filmic experts at wire fu; here are characters doing wire-aided kung fu scenes who carry their own wires with them every where they go. Awesome.