The first word which springs to mind when considering Zhang Yimou’s latest effort, “Curse of the Golden Flower”, is ‘breasts’. Crude though this may seem for an Oscar-primed film from one of China’s foremost directors, it’s simply impossible to ignore the fact that the film’s entire female cast spend most of the running time seemingly about to burst out of the impossibly tight bodices into which they have been barely squeezed, especially lead actress Gong Li. This obvious move on Zhang’s part to sex-up the traditional Chinese period costume drama has not gone unnoticed in his homeland, with his brazen favouring of heaving bosoms over historical accuracy causing no end of controversy and drumming up a nice line of free publicity via countless talk shows.
Thankfully, this eye-popping spectacle aside, “Curse of the Golden Flower” is an excellent film, and one which goes a long way to banish the memory of the many awful recent big budget Chinese epics blatantly tailored for Western audiences such as “The Promise”, “The Banquet” and Zhang’s own exercise in dull theatrics, “House of Flying Daggers”. Boasting a twisted storyline, sumptuous set design, judicious use of action and powerhouse performances from an outstanding cast, “Golden Flower” makes for gripping viewing throughout, with Zhang showing far more substance than he has done of late.
The film’s plot is actually based upon the play “Thunderstorm” by Yu Cao, though with its setting changed from the early twentieth century to 928 A.D., during the later phase of the Tang period. The story begins with the Emperor (played by Hong Kong legend Chow Yun Fat) returning home along with son Prince Jai (sulky popster Jay Chou) to his wife the Empress (Gong Li) in time for the annual chrysanthemum festival after having been away at war for some time. Without giving away too much of the plot, it is apparent from the start that the family is far from happy, with the apparently ailing Empress carrying on an affair with Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), the Emperor’s first son from a previous marriage. This turns out only to be one strand of many in a complicated web of deceit and betrayal, as the various royals scheme relentlessly and murderously against each other in the days leading up to the pivotal festival, when swords are drawn and blood begins to fly.
Although the film’s plot does at times resemble a psychotic soap opera, it engages right from the first frame, moving at a fast pace which keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat, with plenty of surprising revelations and twists. The mood is dark and tense throughout, and though the main characters do show varying degrees of humanity, none are particularly sympathetic and the film is devoid of heroics in a pleasingly nihilistic manner. This works well since most of the roles are well written and fleshed out, with selfish desires and Machiavellian machinations gradually being uncovered in an engrossing fashion. Although most of the relationships in the film are based around hateful power struggles, it builds to a surprisingly emotional, though inevitably bleak climax, as its dark heart is finally laid bare. As such, “Curse of the Golden Flower” harks back to some of Zhang’s earlier, more character driven work, to which it owes a far greater debt than his rather vacuous hit “Hero”.
As expected, the film looks beautiful, with some truly stunning visuals on show. This is true both of its quieter moments, with Zhang showing his usual eye for small details such as the preparation of Chinese medicine, and in its booming battle scenes and overblown depictions of court rituals. The film in particular features some great use of colour, especially in the royal palace itself, a kaleidoscope of bright red, gold and pink which ironically masks the black hearted ambition harboured within. It goes without saying that the film treads slipshod over historical fact, though in Zhang’s defence, there is little in the way of the decadent cinematic excess to which he has been prone to in the past, with the visuals being used successfully to compliment what is essentially a plot and character driven piece.
Another impressive aspect of “Curse of the Golden Flower” is the fact that like the visuals, the action scenes are used to further the plot rather than to supplant it, with Zhang wisely allowing the violence to escalate gradually, throwing in a few set pieces here and there, in a way which makes the final scenes all the more effective as a sudden explosion of the tension and repressed hatred which has built up throughout. Of course, there are a few wacky moments, including a thrilling though odd scene in which a mob of rope swinging, screeching assassins attack an isolated inn, though for the main part the film shows none of the preponderance for computer enhanced airborne duelling that has plagued so many similar efforts. The use of slow-motion is also kept to a merciful minimum, being saved for essential moments only, such as bouncing breasts and one awesome shot of Chow Yun Fat’s swirling hair.
With the film relying on its characters rather than action to entertain, it is fortunate that all concerned turn in some of the strongest performances of their careers, with Gong Li in particular on top form as the fascinatingly complex Empress, adding depth and subtlety in a manner which makes Zhang Ziyi’s attempt at a similar role in “The Banquet” seem all the more laughable. Chow Yun Fat is similarly impressive as the all-powerful and ruthless Emperor, as is Jay Chou as the headstrong though easily manipulated Prince, showing acting skills which far exceed his one-note show in the awful “Initial D”.
These fine performances serve to add further layers of class and believability to “Curse of the Golden Flower”, and elevate it far beyond the level of lavish spectacle, with Zhang managing to combine some of his strongest traits as a director into what surely ranks as one of his finest works. Utterly captivating and marvellously entertaining, “Curse of the Golden flower” gives renewed hope for the future of big budget Chinese cinema and easily stands as one of the best films of 2006.
Yimou Zhang (director) / Yimou Zhang (screenplay), Yu Cao (play)
CAST: Jay Chou …. Prince Jie
Yun-Fat Chow …. Emperor Ping
Li Gong …. Empress Phoenix
Qin Junjie …. Prince Cheng
Man Li …. Jiang Chan
Ye Liu …. Crown Prince Xiang
Dahong Ni …. Imperial Physician