Curse of the Golden Flower
The Bottom Line: A disappointing misfire from a great director
Nov 13, 2006
In "Hero" (2003), "House of Flying Daggers" (2004) and now "Curse of the Golden Flower," director Zhang Yimou has transformed Hong Kong martial arts/fantasy movies into grand, international spectacles. Some critics have worried about his obsession with visual dazzle and digitized effects, but the stories and fights in the first two films more than measured up to the sumptuous design. "Curse," though, feels disappointingly inert.
With a great cast headed by Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li -- thus reuniting Zhang with his one-time muse and lover -- and Asian pop star Jay Chou as well as palace interiors that would not be out of place on the Las Vegas Strip, "Curse" does dazzle the eye, but its story plays like a bad soap opera. This emperor's family is so treacherous as to make Hamlet seem like a fairly well-adjusted member of an easygoing household.
As the Chinese entry for the foreign-language Oscar and with a strong push from Sony Pictures Classics for this big-budgeted epic by one of the world's best directors, "Curse" should open well when it gets released nationally in January after a Dec. 22 limited release. But the boxoffice might not equal that of Zhang's previous action films because, frankly, there isn't all that much action.
Zhang makes the chrysanthemum the film's visual leitmotif. The story takes place during a Chong Yang Festival in 928 A.D. Still celebrated today, the holiday is closely associated with that flower, so Zhang fills the screen with flowers and costumes in opulent gold. In a statement, he quotes an old Chinese saying, "Gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside," to explain his determination to smother his characters and sets with gold. Meanwhile, in the lengthy corridors and vast halls of the palace, light shines through colorful art glass in walls, windows, pillars and props, thus establishing a Vegas look.
In his story, he finds plenty of rot and decay. It starts with the Emperor (Chow), who decides to add poison to the multiple daily doses of herbal medicine he has prescribed for the Empress (Gong). One would like a clearer understanding for this act. True, the Empress has conducted an illicit affair with her stepson, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye). But this has been going on for three years so why does Emperor take action only now?
Oddly enough, the Emperor is about to promote Prince Jai (Chou), their son together, just returned with great success in battle, as his heir apparent, passing over the Crown Prince, a palace-dwelling wastrel. Nevertheless, the poisoning turns wife against husband, brother against brother, army against the palace guard. The nefarious family stratagems and schemes lay bare dark secrets dating back to the Emperor's first wife and ensnare the imperial doctor (Ni Dahong), his daughter (Li Man) and a wife (Chen Jin) long kept in hiding. If only the royals had an imperial family therapist.
Zhang devotes considerable screen time to the details of the palace's daily rituals as if scrutiny of these formalized routines involving maids, courtiers and eunuchs will reveal something about the malevolent rot beneath the surface. This greatly adds to the running time but not to insight into character motivation.
Corseted with stiff gold costumes, Chow and Gong still mange to convey a marriage of convenience fallen into ruin, the formalities unable to disguise the couple's deep contempt for one another. Jay Chow shows fire as the middle son, who is truly caught in the middle between father and mother. Liu tries to pull together the pieces of an erratically written character, while Chen makes up for her late appearance in the film with strong scenes and athletic fights.
Despite Zhang's collaboration with action director Ching Siu-Tokng, the film's few fights are cluttered and undistinguished, in direct contrast to the clarity of the terrific stunt work in the director's previous action films. Zhang over-relies on CGI, but the level of success in no way matches the battles of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the high bar to which any film attempting vast battles must now aspire. In the hand-to-hand combat, the action is often jarring and even confusing.
Alas, in "Curse," the costumes and sets have all the good lines.
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