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CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Liu Ye, Ni Dahong
Director: Zhang Yimou
Audio: Mandarin Chinese, English 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Color, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Sony Pictures
Features: Making-Of featurette, premiere, trailers
Length: 114 minutes
Release Date: March 27, 2007

"There are many things in Heaven and Earth, but you can only have what I choose to give you."

Film ***

For a film director once renowned for his gripping social dramas, Zhang Yimou has been on a surprisingly extended foray into the action genre of late.  Three of his last four movies - Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and now Curse of the Golden Flower - have been outright action-oriented films, a far cry from quieter, earlier efforts such as The Story of Qiu Ju or The Road Home.  While Zhang Yimou's style has evolved over the years, one thing has not changed - the dependably lush cinematography in all his films.  In this regard, Curse of the Golden Flower definitely does not disappoint, and in fact, the film's visual splendor is one of its finer assets.

The other is actress Gong Li.  In fact, Curse of the Golden Flower marks a reunion between Zhang Yimou and his former favorite leading lady, Gong Li.  The director and actress had last worked together over a decade previously on 1995's Shanghai Triad.  Now, in this latest collaboration, Gong Li portrays Curse of the Golden Flower's central tragic character, an Empress caught within the overpowering imperial machinations of an extravagant and corrupt regime.  Her fate is perhaps sealed, but the strong-willed Empress will not submit to her apparent doom without a fight.

The film is set in feudal China during the 10th century Tang Dynasty, a period of female oppression within a male-dominated society.  Curse of the Golden Flower opens on the eve of the annual Chrysanthemum Festival as the Phoenix Empress (Gong Li) prepares for the arrival home of the Dragon Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) to his Imperial Palace.  The Empress is unenthused about her husband's return.  Perhaps she malingers from a daily regimen of bitter medicines which she ingests for a presumptive diagnosis of anemia.  Or, perhaps she is wary that the Emperor may uncover her discreet love affair with her own stepson, the Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), oldest of three half-brothers.

To further complicate matters, the Empress's medicines are actually rather poisonous, having been prepared especially from a prescription issued by none other than the Emperor himself.  This medication is dispensed on a daily basis by the Imperial Doctor (Ni Dahong) and his daughter Chan (Li Man), who harbors her own secret affair...with the Crown Prince as well!  Never mind the apparent conflict of interest in administering toxic medications to one's love rival and queen.  Never mind that the punishment for seducing the Crown Prince is twenty lashes of the whip, permanent branding of the face, and banishment from the kingdom.  For some as-yet unrevealed reason, the Imperial Doctor and his daughter do not hesitate to assist the Emperor in his ill-minded endeavor.

But what rationale lies behind this deliberate plot to slowly murder the Empress?  Why should the Emperor wish to poison his wife?  What secret motivations subsequently dictate her actions once the Empress becomes aware of the danger to herself?  Furthermore, how will each son - one a seemingly ineffectual child, one the incestuous lover, and the last a battle-hardened Prince Jie (Jay Chou) just returned from years defending the borders - react once dragged into this tawdry affair?

This cascading web of lies and ambitious power plays is revealed quickly enough within the first reel of the film.  However, these potent deceptions merely form the tip of the iceberg, foreshadowing much of the betrayal and inevitable tragedy to come.  Indeed, the first half of Curse of the Golden Flower plays like a standard soap opera, if one laced with definite Oedipal tendencies.

As with many mainland Chinese films, Curse of the Golden Flower starts out calmly and deliberately-paced.  The first half of the film idles along while setting the stage with a myriad of political plots, schemes, and intrigues.  That said, the film soon morphs into an utterly apocalyptic bloodbath.  To say that the cataclysmic conclusion of Curse of the Golden Flower is "violent" would be an understatement of remarkable proportions, as its stunning narrative flip-flop from a stately dramatic struggle to an over-the-top gory massacre will leave audiences dizzy and gasping for breath.  Subtle, Curse of the Golden Flower is not.

As if to accentuate the emotional extremes of the film, opulence-as-corruption is a recurring visual motif throughout Curse of the Golden Flower.  This film is virtually a continuous visual smorgasbord of heaving bosoms, shimmering armors, flashy swordplay, acrobatic stunts, and jaw-droppingly resplendent tapestries.  With a plot replete with incest, betrayals, assassinations, attempted patricide, clandestine alliances, and vengeful violence, Curse of the Golden Flower could be easily mistaken for an overly-histrionic King Lear-style melodrama.

As the classic show tune "That's Entertainment" declares, "A ghost and a prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat."  Substitute queen for ghost, and you have Curse of the Golden Flower summarized in a nutshell.

However, don't expect a multi-faceted Shakespearean adaptation such as Hamlet or even Akira Kurosawa's Ran here.  Curse of the Golden Flower is superficial Hollywood entertainment at its "guilty pleasure" finest, merely redressed within a Chinese setting.  While the story may offer a somewhat veiled condemnation of China's past feudal system, Zhang Yimou isn't remotely aiming for social commentary or even high art here.  Curse of the Golden Flower is purely a popcorn movie, plain and simple.

Video ****

Curse of the Golden Flower is a gorgeous film, looking as though the colors of a rainbow had been liquefied into a syrupy goo and poured in generous servings over every movie frame.  The transfer is superb with sharp images and no bleeding.  Dark scenes and brightly-lit scenes alike look spectacular.  This is certainly one of the better-looking films on DVD so far this year.  Check out the "Secrets Within" featurette to learn more about how the film's visual splendor was achieved.

Audio ****

There is an original Mandarin track or an English-dubbed 5.1 track.  Both are excellent, although the Mandarin track is the ideal choice, assuming the viewer either understands Mandarin or does not mind reading subtitles.  The climactic battle sequences offer an aggressive, dynamic experience that should give one's home audio system a nice work-out.

Features *

The dull cover art design for the DVD case makes Curse of the Golden Flower look like a bad Bollywood film.  Please disregard it when considering the actual film.

This disc itself opens with trailers for the Paul Verhoeven WWII drama Black Book and Pedro Almodovar's Volver (starring Penelope Cruz).  Other trailers on the disc include those for Offside, The Italian, Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Kung Fu Hustle, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the documentary American Hardcore, and The Quiet.

"Secrets Within" (21 min.) is the standard promotional advertisement masquerading as a making-of featurette.  Director Zhang Yimou talks about the subject matter and the casting, while cast members Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, and singer-turned-actor Jay Chou discuss their characters.  Also included in this featurette are brief glances at the luminous set design, opulent locales, and Oscar-nominated costumes.  An interesting remark made within this featurette is that one thousand real soldiers were used for Curse of the Golden Flower, which was filmed on the largest set ever created for a Chinese movie.

Lastly, there is a brief montage of images and clips from the Los Angeles premiere (2 min.) with the film's stars and director.

Summary:

This Zhang Yimou film may be pure eye candy with merely perfunctory story elements, but if cinematic brawn and beauty are all that you require, then, Curse of the Golden Flower fully delivers.

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