Curse of the Golden FlowerReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/22/06 00:33:28
Zhang Yimou’s first martial-arts epic, 2002's “Hero,” may have dazzled the eye and his follow-up, 2004's “House of Flying Daggers,” certainly touched the heart. With “Curse of the Golden Flower,” his latest blend of historical drama, lush visuals and gravity-defying action, he has inexplicably chosen to make a film that will only have viewers scratching their heads in utter bafflement. The result is a beautiful-looking mess that so completely goes off the rails into outright insanity that all you can do is just sit there in your seat and mutter to yourself, a la Bill Murray in the climax of “Tootsie,” “That is one nutty dynasty!”Set in 10th century China, during the late days of the Tang Dynasty, the film opens as Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat) returns to the Imperial Palace, along with second-born son Prince Jai (Jay Chou), to celebrate the Chong Yang festival with the rest of his family–wife Empress Phoenix (Gong Li), eldest son Crown Prince Wan (Liu We) and youngest son Prince Yu (Qin Junjie). This is not a happy reunion by any means as the Emperor, suspecting Phoenix of treachery, has been plotting with his loyal physician to take her out of the picture completely by slipping doses of the dreaded Black Fungus into her medication. To his credit, Phoenix has been carrying on a clandestine affair with Prince Wan, her stepson, for years and becomes unhinged when Wan decides to break it off because of his secret love for Chan (Li Man). As the inter-family tensions increase and shocking secrets are revealed, Ping glowers and growls, Wan pines for Chan, who has been sent away with her father to a remote home in the hills on Ping’s order and Phoenix drifts off on her own and becomes obsessed with sewing clothes featuring the yellow chrysanthemums that are the symbol of upcoming festival, much to the worried dismay of loving son Jai. If that weren’t enough, there is also a mammoth army of golden-clad warriors on the way to lay siege to the palace as well.
With a melodramatic plot such as that (and I am almost certain that I am inadvertently leaving a bunch of stuff out), there is the temptation to describe “Curse of the Golden Flower” as being operatic but this is so far over-the-top that such a description seems inadequate. This movie does for historical martial arts epics what Meat Loaf does to rock music–it inflates the cliches and traditions of the genre to such an absurd degree that all you can do is either revel in its audaciousness or throw up your hands in disbelief and move on to something a little more staid. For a while, I found myself doing the former–I couldn’t help but be pleased that every time I thought that it couldn’t possibly get more ridiculous, it would proceed to do just that–but after a while, even I found myself growing weary at seeing a ridiculously convoluted, yet strangely thin and unsurprising, story being swamped by Yimou’s elaborate visual pyrotechnics. (Bear in mind that this is coming from the same dope who raved endlessly about the joys of “Ultraviolet.”) Maybe if this had been Yimou’s first stab at the genre, I might have been more impressed with his technical achievements here but while the film is gorgeous to behold (even though it doesn’t have a chance of beating out “Children of Men,” it is a virtual lock for a Best Cinematography nomination), there is nothing here that truly stands out in the way that the best moments of “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” did.
Actually, the most baffling thing about the film is the fact that Yimou had the good taste and sensibility to cast two of the most charismatic Asian actors working today–contemporary legends Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li–and mysteriously decided to squander this opportunity by casting them in roles in which they spend what little on-screen time they have together regarding each other at first with barely-disguised contempt and then sailing right into outright contempt. Frankly, I can’t even figure out why Yimou cast Yun-Fat in the first place because it is a role that is completely unsuitable for that actor’s special gifts. As fans of his collaborations with John Woo know, Yun-Fat has a laconic coolness to him similar to the kind once possessed by Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson but here, he has been swathed in ridiculous facial hair and forced to deliver the kind of scenery-chewing performance that simply doesn’t make for a comfortable fit. By comparison, Gong Li, reuniting with Yimou for the first time since the dissolution of their personal and professional relationship a decade earlier, is far more compelling but that is mostly because she looks so ravishing throughout that you simply can’t take your eyes off of here–from an artistic standpoint, this performance is a long way off from the work she did for Yimou in “Ju Dou” or “The Story of Qiu Ju,” but then again, so is Yimou’s.I can’t possibly in good conscience recommend “Curse of the Golden Flower” to anyone with a straight face–it is just too ridiculous for its own self-serious good and seems to go on forever with nary a point. However, I have to admit that buried within it are a few moments here and there that are so mind-boggling weird that I was glad that I got a chance to see them, even if I had to sit through the rest of the film to catch them. There is an opening series of shots that appear to have been included to answer the unspoken question of what “The Last Emperor” might have looked like if Bertolucci had stepped down and was replaced with Russ Meyer. (Apparently Wonderbras were all the rage in 10th century China. There is the weird shift in the final reels from a more stylized approach to the violence to outright gore. There is, after all the carnage and melodramatics in those final reels, an end credit love ballad that comes across as hilariously incongruous. If the mention of any of those moments brings a smile to your face, you might actually get a strange kick out of “Curse of the Golden Flower.” If not, you are probably better off just standing in the lobby and staring at the poster–after all, the film’s greatest asset, the sight of Gong Li, will remain the same and the writing on the poster is infinitely superior to anything you’ll see or hear coming off the screen.
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