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Worth A Look: 7.14%
Just Average32.14%
Pretty Crappy: 25%
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3 reviews, 10 user ratings

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Curse of the Golden Flower
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by Jay Seaver

"A fabulous family fued."
5 stars

Those coming to "Curse of the Golden Flower" expecting a martial arts epic akin to director Zhang Yimou's previous wuxia films, "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers", may well be disappointed. A relatively short amount of time is spent on fighting, but that time has tremendous import because of the film's art-house pedigree: Zhang is working with long-time leading lady Gong Li for the first time in ten years, and that's almost all the film needs.

Gong Li plays the Empress in this film set predominately in the Forbidden City during the Tang Dynasty. She is the second wife of the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat); a lover to his oldest son, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye); and mother of First Brother Jai (Jay Chou), who has just returned from three years at the frontier, and Second Brother Yu (Qin Junjie), who seeks more responsibilities. Ten days ago, the Emperor instructed the court physician (Ni Dahong) to have his daughter (and Wan's lover) Chan (Man Li) secretly add black fungus to the Empress's anemia medicine. The formulation will destroy the Empress's mental faculties within two months. The Empress can already see the poison's effects, though, and has set her own plans for revenge into place - if her designs are correct, her son will be Emperor in mere days, after the Chrysanthemum Festival.

It's perfectly clear that Gong Li is going to be this film's central attraction form the start, even as the ornate and colorful production design threatens to swallow her and the rest of the cast. She carries herself like royalty, acting as though the legions of servants that follow her everywhere are her due, even as she relaxes when alone with the princes. The character never verbally acknowledges the tremor in her hand, but the reactions that play across the actress's face are captivating: There's some embarrassment, because an Empress cannot be allowed to show weakness, but also frustration and anger. What's most impressive is how Li makes us believe in the Empress as calculating but also passionate. There's fierce, angry intelligence on display when she plots and reveals her secrets, but also genuine care for her princes. The performance is riveting; Li makes the Empress a compelling monster.

Her opponent in this deadly game is played by Chow Yun-Fat, cast against type as a harsh, domineering Emperor. His charming, baby-faced grin is locked behinnd a goatee and his temples are gray, and his physical grace is only on display once; he's an evil laugh away from being the evil kung fu master or emperor from a Shaw Brothers film in shinier robes. As much as this isn't what one expects from Chow, he's good at it - after that one fight scene, where the Emperor pointedly reminds Jai who the royal family's alpha male is, we're not surprised to find out that rather than being born to his post, he ascended to by being focused and ruthless. Even if Chow doesn't quie command the screen the way Li does, he makes for a surprisingly good villain.

The rest of the cast plays their parts in the battle between the Emperor and Empress, and does so well. Singer Jay Chou makes Jai a good man, plausibly torn between his parents. Liu Ye presents Wan's loyalties as less divided, although he's still being hurt and torn apart just as much as Wan. Qin Jinjie gives his Second Brother Yu a good combination of youthful simplicity and anger at being constantly underestimated. Then there's the other family, unfortunate enough to intersect with the royals. We like Man Li as Chan right off; she's all exuberant, beautiful youth, and like Wan she wants nothing more to escape the palace's machinations to simply be with the one she loves. Dahong Ni makes her father older but not necessarily wiser, the kind of chraacter who, despite being a loyal aide to the Emperor for years, still manages surprise when treachery strikes close to home. Chen Sin's character Jiang Shi is the most practical figure among them, harboring secrets of her own but mostly worried about the present.

She's also the focus of two of the film's more exciting action sequences - indeed, her character does more hand-to-hand fighting than any of the men. Although advertised as being a piece with Hero{/i] and House of Flying Daggers, it's worth remembering that Emperors don't fight with their fists, but with armies. The action at the film's climax is not a fight but a battle, as the Empress attempts to seize the crown for her son with thousands of soldiers dressed in gold taking on the Emperor's black-clad troops. The scale is awe-inspiring, even if the massive crowd shots do have a CGI-fuzzy look to them. The real fun is the assassins who swoop out of the sky as the film heads toward the third act. Sure, one's first reaction might be "I didn't think China had ninjas", but there's no denying that my first reaction when I saw the sky raining black-clad killers was "this is going to be good". The film may not be wall-to-wall action, but what there is is bloody, effective, and tragic.

Even without constant fighting, this film is still a feast for the eyes. As in Hero, color plays an important role. The film is awash in golds, yellows, and blacks; the golds of the Empress's forces are dazzling, and the black battlements the Emperor erects against them look like something Sauron's forces would build in Lord of the Rings. The poisoned medicine looks like sewer sludge amid the Forbidden City's opulence, and the rarely-glimpsed colors of life and nature have a distinctly softer tone than the gleaming metal. The costumes are equally outrageous, from the emperor's golden robes that a retainer must lift if he is to sit to the impressive corseting that gives Gong and Man Li such eye-catching cleavage.

All the glitter does remind one that the story does take place in a fantastically artificial environment, one which isolates the royal family so much that the Emperor doesn't recognize his longtmie physician's wife. In a way, this film works as something of a rebuke to Zhang's Hero: That film ultimately carried a message of trusting in state control, while Golden Flower shows us leaders almost completely divorced from their people, rewarding themselves with absurd excess, such as the four maids summoned to administer the Empress's medicine, and never concerning themselves with their kingdom, but only their own position and survival. Indeed, by the end of the film, it might seem as though the message is that those with the ambition to rise to the top being the people you'd least want there.

Or, it could just be beautifully filmed melodrama, with any thoughts on the nature of power a happy afterthought. If it's melodrama, though, it's great melodrama, glorious in its excess without becoming parody.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15300&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/23/06 12:17:36
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User Comments

11/11/11 Den Brill, Story a bit above average intelligence, so most won't like! 5 stars
9/06/09 blah too much cleavage, lack of drive, but looks very impressive 4 stars
5/24/08 Karrie Millheim alot of court intrigue, very colorful, Gong Li does a great job 5 stars
5/28/07 damalc Yimou, Shakespeare style 4 stars
4/30/07 noname retard it was stupid and retarted 1 stars
4/24/07 Twerpy Nicely made and looks clean/solid, but lacking story and drive 3 stars
2/05/07 William Goss A lavish and seemingly endless spectacle of cleavage, then carnage, but not very fun. 3 stars
1/24/07 KingNeutron Wait for the dvd - the emphasis isn't on martial arts. 2 stars
1/21/07 Heather Stunning visuals ... 5 stars
1/18/07 Aaron Smith Amazing color, spectacle. Story lacking. 3 stars
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  21-Dec-2006 (R)
  DVD: 27-Mar-2007



Directed by
  Zhang Yimou

Written by
  Zhang Yimou

  Chow Yun-Fat
  Gong Li
  Jay Chou
  Qin Junjie
  Man Li
  Ye Liu

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