Beyond the bloody mess that the cleanup crew would have to deal with and golden armours, there lies a greater message in Yimou Zhang’s myriad work. What is it? Prior to this, the director was often criticized by Chinese censors for his eyebrow-raising films, hinting at the intimate oppressions that may or may not be a reality. To slightly better the situation, Hero offers a dazzling wire-fu epic that was also an appalling paean to authoritarianism and the “One China” policy of subjugating, a temporary capitulation to appease the government. The similarities in all of his best films? Authority and imperial army scraps.
Chinese films never really do well outside of Asia. They say that it is very difficult to make it in Hollywood as an actor, and aptly so. It is my stringent belief that film has no boundaries, on the morality field and also geographically. If I had to give Curse of the Golden Flower a rating out of ten, I’d give a solid 8.5 out of 10. If I had to do the same for Transformers: The Last Knight, a resounding 2 out of 10. However, it is understandable that you would come in here knowing the basic plot of any Transformers film, compared to arguably the greatest Chinese film in history. While it is a valid statement that most Chinese films just don’t appeal to the Western Hemisphere, even resorting to the occasional crappy remakes, I think they don’t receive enough publicity either. Zoom out from China’s box office and look at Asian films as a whole, I think everyone would still be content with not having watched any Asian films. That, is wrong. Plenty of great Asian films have graced the director’s camera, some actually prompting American remakes themselves. The Japanese have Seven Samurai, Spirited Away and Ring. The South Koreans have Oldboy and The Host. The Chinese, the topic of conversation here, have Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and most importantly, Curse of the Golden Flower.
Curse of the Golden Flower is an ambitious attempt to blend martial arts action with Shakespearean melodrama. It’s not a perfect marriage but it offers two hours of solidly over-the-top entertainment featuring incredible visuals and powerful performances by international icons Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat. While aspects of Curse of the Golden Flower hearken back to some of Zhang’s earlier films, the film as a whole is more in keeping with the style he has developed in recent years (with Hero and House of Flying Daggers). The strong elements of melodrama in the story are likely to make it more accessible to those who found those films too action oriented.
The film is established in the 10th century during the short-lived Tang Dynasty. Despite the historical setting, the film is not factual on any level, nor does it pretend to be. In fact, the primary source material for Curse of the Golden Flower’s screenplay, co-written by Zhang , Wu Nan, and Bian Zhihong, is a Chinese play set in the 1930s. Zhang has re-worked the story to transport it more than a millennium back in time. There are also strong Shakespearean overtones to what transpires. It would be surprising for any literate viewer to sit through Curse of the Golden Flower and not think of Hamlet at least once.
China’s royal family is in turmoil. The emperor is gradually poisoning his wife, the empress, by adding a deadly fungus to her hourly anemia medicine. The empress is sexually involved with her step-son, Crown Prince Wan, who is also carrying on with Chan, the daughter of the palace doctor. Prince Jai has returned from a long period fighting the Mongols to learn this lesson from his father.
Never take what you have not been given.
The youngest son, Prince Yu, stews in a cauldron of jealousy because his brothers get all the attention. Meanwhile, the empress learns of her husband’s plans to take her life and plots an intricate plan of revenge that relies upon Jai’s loyalty to her.
Those expecting Curse of the Golden Flower to replicate Hero and House of Flying Daggers in terms of style and approach will be surprised by what this film offers. Over the course of its 120 minute running time, Curse of the Golden Flower provides a share of sumptuous visuals and competing machinations unfold in high operatic style. The scenes in the palace with its colourful curtains and carpets are a Technicolor dream, as are the shots outside the building with a field of yellow chrysanthemums filling the courtyard. Colour is one of the filmmakers’ chief tools. In some circles, it has become fashionable to desaturate hues until the palette is almost black-and-white. Zhang uses the opposite approach, with reds and yellows in particular being highlighted. The material may be dark but the look is bright and gay.
There are several martial arts sequences, including an epic battle that is obviously computer generated, but nothing to match the artistry of Zhang’s previous films. This one is more plot heavy and the strands of the story weave a tragedy that would make the Greeks proud. There’s incest, betrayal, murder, poisoning, fratricide, and various other unsavoury human endeavors. This isn’t the kind of film you watch when you want to feel good about the human condition. Admittedly, it goes way over the top in some areas, but that’s the kind of thing most melodramas do.
Solid performances by Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat anchor the story. The other cast members, except perhaps pop star Jay Chou, who exudes screen presence, always seem to be struggling to keep up. Gong, appearing for the first time in more than a decade in a film directed by Zhang, channels elements of her character from Raise the Red Lantern. There’s some of the pain, loneliness, and incipient madness of that woman in the empress. Chow Yun Fat taps into a vein of sinister amorality. His emperor is powerful and smart, but never likable.
Curse of the Golden Flower is a spectacle. Even during those times when the plot either doesn’t make a lot of sense or becomes too contrived, the film is too beautiful to look away from. It’s enjoyable in the same way a soap opera or potboiler is enjoyable. It looks like high art, but isn’t. The subtitles alone keep it from being mass entertainment in North America. For those who have appreciated Zhang’s work during any of the stages of his career, this makes for engaging and interesting viewing. It remains to be seen whether this is a one-off experiment or whether it represents the next direction in which his exploration of filmmaking will take him.
As a form of foreshadowing, we are treated to the moral twice, which is fatally espoused. First, the empress and the crown prince, marring the naive dissertation.
Many things can be changed.
She is corrected.
In fact, nothing can be changed.
The same lesson that the emperor bestows upon Prince Jai after fighting the Mongols is direct.
There are many things in Heaven and Earth, but you can only have what I choose to give you.
Taken together, these scenes offer a clear message: Take what the state offers and be content, for nothing you do can ever change it. It’s hard not to read this as a reassurance to China’s authoritarian rulers — and an implicit warning to any who might oppose them.