Zhang Yimou’s third wu xia (swordplay) epic bathes the screen in opulence. Its staggering sets, costumes and compositions of exquisite beauty cleverly mask the dark, disturbing emotions lurking underneath. Whereas Hero (2003) was a meta-textual odyssey, and House of Flying Daggers (2004) a crowd-pleasing subversion of genre rules, Curse of the Golden Flower is a chamber piece wherein a dysfunctional family disintegrates - spectacularly.
The Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat - here a magnetic monster, which is something new in the iconic actor’s repertoire) administers daily doses of “medicine” that slowly poison his Empress (Gong Li - luminous, in her reunion with Yimou), in revenge for the affair she had with her stepson, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye). The Empress’ obsession with embroidering golden chrysanthemums for the Chong Yang Festival is part of an elaborate scheme to stage a coup, aided by her devoted son, Prince Jai (Cantopop star Jay Chou).
Chou’s participation drew huge crowds of Asian youngsters to see this movie and his subsequent directing career received a surprising amount of critical acclaim. Yet if one imagines Justin Timberlake opposite Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro, you’ll understand why Chinese teenagers were excited and others left underwhelmed.
A plodding setup delivers plots, schemes and counterplots via awkward exposition, but gives way to a delirious second half. A spectacular pageant of gold-clad warriors, head-spinning revelations of jealousy, treachery and incest, heart-rending tragedy of near-Shakespearian dimensions and the scariest ninjas portrayed onscreen since fight choreographer Ching Siu Tung’s own Duel to the Death (1981). The mix of courtly intrigue and wistful romance recalls the wu xia classics of Shaw Brothers director Chu Yuan. Yimou displays his masterly way with film grammar and often places characters centre frame, their lives desolate amidst baroque beauty. He weaves some subversive symbolism: the Chong Yang Festival traditionally celebrates positive energy and family, while chrysanthemums were used to detoxify and drive away evil. Sadly, his efforts went unappreciated by ill-informed western critics who, when faced with almost every wu xia, all too often groan: “same old, same old… pretty pictures, no story.”
Not so. English language culture favours the written/spoken word with high art filtered through the grittiness of Italian neo-realism, French New Wave and Dogme, while the action movie is relegated to populist entertainment. Asian culture is pictographic, celebrating gesture, symbolism, and action perfectly encapsulated in the wu xia (and its less fanciful Japanese cousin, the chanbara), the sole film genre to develop outside Hollywood. Its dreamlike, visually-driven storytelling is the root of Far Eastern cinema whether action, comedy or animation. Some people still struggle with that. Give the genre a chance and you’ll discover an exhilarating alternative cinema. More than mere “pretty pictures”, Curse of the Golden Flower’s story is as different from Hero and House of Flying Daggers as Rio Bravo (1959) is from The Searchers (1956): lies, hypocrisy and petty resentment erupt into large scale tragedy. Adapted from a classical play, it occasionally feels starchy and stage bound, but the claustrophobic tone befits a story that gradually constricts its tragic heroes before concluding on an anguished scream. Lacking the wistful romanticism of its predecessors, it has struggled to find an audience but remains worth seeing for its leads’ towering performances. As for the sumptuous visuals: Yimou is the Willy Wonka of eye-candy. You might just gouge out your eyeballs and lick them.
Chinese director responsible for some of the country’s best known international hits. A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Yimou made his debut in 1987 with Red Sorghum, which like much of his later work combined a small-scale drama with stunning visuals. His breakthrough film was the beautiful Raise the Red Lantern, the first of four films he made with then-partner Gong Li. The Story of Qui Ju, To Live, Shanghai Triad and Not One Less were among the films Yimou made throughout the 90s. The Chaplin-esque comedy Happy Times was a bit of a misfire, but 2002's Oscar-nominated martial arts spectacle Hero was a massive hit, critically and commercially. Another martial arts film, House of Flying Daggers, followed in 2004, as did Curse of the Golden Flower and later the internationally-flavoured fantasy The Great Wall.