- on Wednesday, 05 May 2010 14:23
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In the ten years since Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) and his one-time muse and mistress, actress Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha, Miami Vice), parted personal and professional ways, their respective careers have flourished, crossing international film barriers. It was together, however, that they created a series of memorable masterpieces (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad) - films which relied less on traditional Chinese martial artistry and instead, engaged audiences with compelling narratives and cinematic beauty. The historical epic, Curse of the Golden Flower (which marks their first reunion in over a decade), is no exception. Lush with lavish costumes and exotic set designs, Yimou intricately weaves wuxia martial arts with tragedian elements of passion, betrayal, incest, fratricide and murder in order to create an eye-popping extravaganza about the familial decay beneath the gold and jaded walls of the Imperial Palace. And it is no surprise, that his most precious Flower, the incomparable Li, is at the center of it all.
Adapted from one of China's most famous plays (Cao Yu's Thunderstorm), Curse of the Golden Flower takes place during the flamboyant Tang Dynasty, circa 928 A.D. On the eve of the Chong Yang Festival, the cold-hearted and chauvinistic Emperor Ping (Chow Yun Fat), along with his second-born son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), return from a three-year battle with the Mongols. The royal bed has hardly gone cold during his absence, however, for the Empress Phoenix (Li) has been keeping warm with the Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), the Emperor's first-born, from a previous marriage. Although heir to the throne, the less-than-political Wan prefers to evade the deadly ramifications of such love triangles and run away with Chan (Li Man), both the Empress' servant and daughter to the Imperial Physician (Ni Dahong). Unbeknownst to Prince Wan, however, the Emperor's faithful have already advised him of the illicit affair.
Rather than confront the adulteress, the Emperor orders the doctor to add black fungus to his wife's daily medicine; a deadly concoction that will slowly, and painfully, cause her to lose all mental faculties. (And you thought your family was dysfunctional.) Problem is, an unlikely source (Chen Jin) has already advised the Empress of her husband's diabolical design (a confidante who also proffers family-shattering insight into the tangled web of deceit woven by the Emperor during his rise to power). Thus, with every mandated sip, the Empress aligns a bloody coup that will ultimately pin son against son, son against father and husband against wife.
Martial arts enthusiasts looking for non-stop, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-esque action, be forewarned: Curse of the Golden Flower plays more like a slow-moving Shakespearean drama, almost devoid of hand-to-hand combat, building psychological tension until it finally explodes in a bitter bloodbath. And even then, the computer-generated armies are less than awe-inspiring. Rest assured, however, that even though martial arts is merely a supporting actor, there are some scenes to behold: the black-cloaked ninjas descending through a mountain pass are, for lack of a better word, awesome; when the steely-eyed Emperor takes on his weak, third son, Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), the beating is brutal; and when a blood-soaked Jai approaches the palace door shielding his father, your heart races, imagining what is to come.
But for what Curse of the Golden Flower lacks in martial artistry, it makes up for in beauty. A $45 million production bathed in pure opulence (the most expensive in Chinese film-history), every inch of every frame is drenched in gold (symbol of economic power) - walls, carpeting, wardrobes, fingernails, the endless sea of chrysanthemums that line the courtyard, even the lips that dare not speak of the atrocities that occur within the royal family's gilded cage. Although the kaleidoscope of color, at times, nearly swallows its characters, it is a constant and chilling reminder of how even the most self-imploding feudal family must always present a facade of strength and family unity. (The most dramatic example occurs post-slaughter. Watch how after the chrysanthemums are covered in blood and thousands of bodies are strewn across the courtyard, palace servants immediately haul the carnage away, scrub the blood-soaked tiles and replace each and every pot with fresh, blooming chrysanthemums.)
Recorded in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles, the commanding performances of Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat require no spoken words; be it a defiant stare, a change in posture or a stroke of the beard, their facial and physical expressions speak over and above what the written dialogue can offer. And while Junjie and Ye are, unfortunately, less effective as book-end princes, the only character to upstage this Asian-royalty is the royal wardrobe, itself.
Nominated for an Academy Award, costume-designer Yee Chung Man ensured that his oppressed army of female servants looked stunning while tightly bound, his Empress' robes could swallow the five servants required to administer her deadly tea, and his males were draped in astounding garb that only reinforce their palatial dominance. (In fact, it took a team of forty, over a two month period, just to embroider the layers of gold necessary for the Dragon Robe and Phoenix Gown adorned during the Chrysanthemum Festival.) Even more astonishing is the â"choreography" of the wardrobe. Ornate hair pins fly, releasing Li's hair when she encounters a struggle; the Emperor's train swirls violently behind him when he becomes enraged; when the crowns are adorned, strength is invigorated; and when blood touches the Empress' embroidered chrysanthemum scarves, it symbolizes her own blood to be shed.
No one can deny that the final chapter of Yimou's wuxia martial arts trilogy, Curse of the Golden Flower, offers a haunting yet visually intoxicating view into the opulence, and decadence, that pervaded the insular palace-world of the Tang Dynasty. A breed of ancient tragedy mixed with pure eye candy, this film is packed with intense, emotional story-lines, veteran performances from Asia's leading actors and the most luxurious costumes and set designs to grace the screen. And while many action-oriented fans will find that its melodramatic pace, color-drenched palate, host of unanswered questions and less than breathtaking fight scenes cause it to wilt in comparison to its martial arts predecessors, Yimou's faithful will immediately recognize that Curse of the Golden Flower has blossomed from unique garden of films planted by Yimou and Li years ago. As such, it should neither be compared nor tampered with, but merely admired for the beauty it possesses.
Screen formats: Widescreen Anamorphic 2.35:1:1
Subtitles: English; French
Language and Sound: Closed Captioned; English: Dolby Digital 5.1; Chinese: Dolby Digital 5.1
Other Features: Color; interactive menus; scene access.
o Secrets Within (00:22:00)
o Los Angeles Red Carpet Premiere (00:02:30)
Number of discs: - 1- Keepcase packaging