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Curse of the Golden Flower is a direct response to audiences who may've felt disappointed by the relative smallness of scope of director Zhang Yimou’s 2005 film, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, and even 2004’s House of Flying Daggers, in comparison to 2002’s internationally-acclaimed epic, Hero.  People have been anxiously awaiting another martial arts blockbuster from Zhang.  With Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang was given what is reportedly the largest budget for a Chinese film, and the result is absolutely spectacular. 

This is a film that will be held up as a benchmark of artistic achievement in motion pictures for years to come. Zhang’s cinematographer, Zhao Xiading, production designer Huo Tingxiao, and costumer, Yee Chung Man, have much to be proud of.  The glowing rainbow palette of colours that saturate the interiors of the palace and the carpet of royal yellow flowers filling the entire vast courtyard are practically blinding.  The kingdom represented here is immaculate and prosperous.  The Royal Family is bedecked in layer upon layer of exquisite beaded silk robes and decked out in gold and ivory jewels from head to toe.  They are cocooned in unmitigated and palpable luxury.  But such beauty and sumptuous riches can't detract from the fact that what runs through these opulent halls is pure venom.  It is a gorgeous backdrop that houses a nest of brilliant vipers all seemingly poised to strike at each other, while aiming to present a united and powerful front to the entire country.  Curse of the Golden Flower is an exercise in deceit, betrayal, manipulation, rebellion, and murder.

The film takes place in the 10th century, during the Later Tang Dynasty. Prince Jai, the 2nd son of the royal family, returns home shortly before the annual Chong Yang Festival, which is, in part, a celebration of family gathering.  While the Prince’s return from military battle is cause for outward joy and a very public tightening of family bonds, almost nothing is as idyllic as it seems.  There is the mystery of the increasing illness of the Empress and the golden chrysanthemums she embroiders obsessively.  There is the restlessness of the Crown Prince Wan, who is the son of the Emperor’s deceased first wife, and his entanglement with Chen, the beautiful daughter of the trusted Imperial Physician.  We see Prince Jai’s concern for his mother’s failing health, and his suspicions about the remedies that might be the cause of her sickness.  His complex relationship with his father, the Emperor, is one of love and rivalry, with the Emperor challenging Prince Jai’s ambitions.  The third and youngest son, Prince Yu, craves only the admiration of his father.  The story of the Emperor himself is one of ambitious beginnings; he was not born royal, and he readily demonstrates the iron will it took to win his crown.

To my knowledge, Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li have never starred in a film together prior to Curse of the Golden Flower.  The combination of the two is a revelation for the acting world.  The only things brighter than the colours in this film are the pure electric sparks between the Emperor and his Empress.  I wished they'd had more scenes together.  I was mesmerized by their chemistry and intensity.  Gong Li - who radiates a regal presence while standing around doing nothing - has found a role that takes that sublime poise, tears it into shreds and throws it back together again.  Her Empress is equal parts Lady Macbeth, Phaedra, and Madame Mao, yet somehow you actually feel great sympathy for this glorious monster.  It is a credit to Zhang’s skill in bringing out amazing and unexpected performance in his actors that you see Chow Yun Fat as you have never seen him before.  His Emperor is all pride, cunning, and ruthlessness.  Zhang takes Chow’s world-famous beatific smile and gives it a completely new and unexpected meaning.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film occurs when the Emperor metes out a particularly cruel comeuppance to someone who has crossed him.  The scene is already shocking for its harshness and violence, but turns absolutely chilling when Chow’s Emperor breaks into laughter while inflicting the punishment.

The younger actors, Jay Chou (Prince Jai), Liu Ye (Crown Prince Wan), Qin Junjie (Prince Yu), and Li Man (Chen) are all remarkable. They are able to instantly and realistically express the sudden change of emotions and intentions that spiral throughout the film.  Liu Ye, in particular, gives a very touching performance as the dutiful Crown Prince, portraying devotion to his family and his secret beloved, as well as the bewilderment, heartbreak and betrayal at the circle of events that eventually threaten to consume him. He carries the heart of the film.  It is commendable to all involved that none of the characters come off as one-dimensional.

Curse of the Golden Flower is based on a 1934 Chinese play named “Thunderstorm” written by dramatist Cao Yu.  The many twists and jaw-dropping denouements could easily have come from any of the Greek tragedies.  It initially presents a score of questions and keeps the viewer guessing - nothing and no one is black or white - but once the answers are revealed; there is no less sense of surprise. Right down the phenomenal score by Shigeru Umebayashi (In the Mood for Love, Hero), the film’s tone is operatic. While I'm sure many will expect and focus on the film’s breathtaking action sequences, the emotion and drama of the storyline is no less gripping.  Curse of the Golden Flower fulfills on every level.

The action is directed by Tony Ching Siu-Tung (A Better Tomorrow 2, Heroic Trio, Shaolin Soccer).  It happens suddenly and at whiplash speed.  While it didn't feel the least bit gratuitous, there is a brutality here that I have never seen in Zhang’s previous films.  Many of the sequences put me in the mind of some of the better moments of Tsui Hark’s great actioners in their energy and relentlessness.  There is very little of the lyrical, dreamlike movements of the fight scenes in Hero, the fighting in Curse of the Golden Flower packs a punch.

A word about the sheer volume of background actors in this film, I have never seen anything like it.  It is de rigueur for directors to turn to their CGI special effects wizards for scenes requiring vast numbers of extras.  In Curse of the Golden Flower, the number of actors portraying servants inside the royal household alone was impressive, but for the film’s climax, Zhang reportedly recruited a background cast of over 1,000 to convey the viciousness of battle, and the despair of fighting against impossible odds no matter how dear the cost.  The use of flying camera angles perfectly captured the destruction and the astounding amount of actors employed for this scene.

Curse of the Golden Flower is a huge artistic milestone for Zhang Yimou, and a tremendous showing by all of the actors. I was amazed.  I hope this remarkable film receives its due, and is fondly remembered by the members of the Academy come February.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

 

 

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