Kicking and Scheming
Palace intrigue in the Late Tang Dynasty
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER: Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Zhang Yimou, Wu Nan and Bian Zhihong. Cinematography, Zhao Xiaoding. Production design, Huo Tingxiao. Costumes, Yee Chung Man. Starring Gong Li, Chow Yun Fat and Jay Chou. Sony Pictures Classics, 2006. R. 114 minutes.
|Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat in Curse of the Golden Flower|
In the last few years, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou has focused mainly on the making of action epics, with the exception of the quiet, intimate Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2006). In 2003's Hero and 2004's House of Flying Daggers, he offered grand, sweeping tales stunningly photographed and rich with breathtaking fight sequences. Curse of the Golden Flower, his latest, combines the intimate family focus of Riding and the dramatic hues of Daggers and Hero, but what results is a blinding assault of color, spectacle and melodrama that reaches for classic drama but falls short of the mark. As The New York Times said, the effect is one of "operatic delirium."
Though the film feels so fable-like that the time period is almost irrelevant, Curse is set in the Late Tang Dynasty, circa 928 AD. It opens with a surprisingly entrancing, gracefully choreographed piece: the awakening of the palace. Servants move in unison though the lavish dwelling of red walls, colored glass pillars, billowing curtains and golden lighting. Rows of beautiful women kneel before their colleagues, tying their sashes; at a cue, each pair changes places. These scenes serve to make the isolation of the royal family stronger: Among all these people, the Empress (Gong Li) and her three sons, stepson Wan (Liu Ye), warrior Jai (Jay Chou) and blandly smiling Yu (Qin Junjie), seem astonishingly alone.
At the film's outset, the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) is on his way home, though he delays for a night at an inn. A dazzling indoor fight between the Emperor and second son Jai serves to remind the young man that what his father does not give him, he cannot take. This rule extends to the Empress, who is afflicted with a serious illness. Every two hours, a bitter medicine is served to her; distaste is clear on Gong Li's imperious, stunning face.
The plot of Curse of the Golden Flower is a knot of palace intrigue: murder, incest, mysterious black-clad spies, the Chysanthemum Festival and a play (or two) for the Emperor's throne. Motive, however, is rather murky, and to enjoy the film for the spectacle it is, it's best to simply go along with the turns of loyalty and tangled connections, savoring the detailed costumes and beautifully turned-out sets. The palace seems made of curtains, screens and decorative doors that offer only the illusion of privacy — a parallel for the illusion of individual power that each member of the family clings to. But all power is the Emperor's. When his black-clad soldiers swoop down upon a remote building, the effect of the use of black is as dazzling as the perfect formations of the warriors. Later, in a messy, massive battle at the palace, gold-clad soldiers find themselves up against a wall of silver and black. The battle rages on, but the fighting between nameless, faceless and clearly computer-enhanced armies quickly becomes tedious.
But even before the mostly anonymous battle, Curse of the Golden Flower begins to push the viewer out of the story. As the characters scheme against one another, their interactions begin to feel tonally repetitive, thick with the effect of emotional isolation but nonetheless unsympathetic. Of the actors, only Gong Li shines. Decked out in an unbearable amount of gold, she swoops through the palace's corridors, working to keep her bejeweled head held high. But even her driving passions are somewhat obscured. Despite Gong Li's effort and a nicely taut turn from Chow Yun Fat, Curse of the Golden Flower seems to start in the middle of a story that had a more interesting beginning than end.
Curse of the Golden Flower opens Friday, Jan. 12 at the Bijou