The new Chinese drama Curse of the Golden Flower is a welcome return to form by director Zhang Yimou, and further proof that major Chinese stars Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat do their best work on home ground.
In the past fifteen years Zhang has gone from being the bad boy of Chinese cinema (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern) to the acceptable face of a cultured China with international hits like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. With Curse of the Golden Flower, we see a return to a much stronger character-based drama, albeit still a period-martial arts feature, but its tone is much closer to 1970s Shaw Brothers cinema than the lightweight, color-coded images of Yimou’s recent martial arts excursions. I suspect he’s also feeling the competitive heat from emerging directors such as Lu Chuan ( Kekexili: Mountain Patrol) and Feng Xiaogang (A World Without Thieves), whose latest film Banquet is very similiar in content and style to Golden Flower.
Based on the 1934 play Thunderstorm by Cao Yu, the film is set in 922 during the Tang dynasty. It opens in the days leading up to the Chong Yang festival, a period of great celebration throughout China of which the Chrysanthemun is highly symbolic.
With the arrival of Prince Jai (Jay Chou), returning home after a prolonged military campaign in Northern China, the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) and his family plan to enjoy the festivities together. The sumptuous pomp and ceremony which surrounds the Royal family is soon seen as an opulent facade to a house bitterly divided. Below the surface, cancerous emotions simmer; the Empress (Gong Li) is clearly estranged from her husband and her health is failing. She obsesses over a chrysanthemum embroidery which she must complete before the onset of Chong Yang.
The Emperor greets his warrior son by challenging him to a duel and on his return to the Forbidden City he is the target of an assassin: a woman with a badly scarred face, who is released on the Emperor’s orders. The Chinese curse ‘to live in interesting times’ is well in place here.
Through the Empress’ sickness, we see the beginnings of a palace coup. Zhang shows just how deadly a game these palace intrigues are and how innocent and not-so-innocent people become little more than collateral damage. The worm turns many times in this house of vipers. On the eve of Chong Yang, the family of the Emperor’s physician is attacked by a force of black robed killers — this sets in train a series of events that leads to the gates of the Imperial Palace where an army of ten thousand soldiers lays siege to the Emperor.
Zhang and his writers have devised a series of seemingly unrelated story threads that are cleverly drawn together creating a captivating slow-burn effect. Chow Yun-Fat as the Emperor gives a great performance of a character who, ultimately, is a totally hateful figure. A tyrant cloaked in gold costume that can only hide for so long the blackest and most misanthropic of personas. Gong Li is a near perfect picture of a woman teetering on the edge of madness, who yearns for a heroic death to amend a life of wanton selfishness.
When the two eventually face off the destuction of an empire is a small price to pay for personal triumph.
Apart from the lead actors, the film is peppered with a pleasing blend of youth and experience. Taiwanese teen star Jay Chou (Initial D) has some solid screen time as the confused middle son, Prince Jai. Veteran mainland actor Chen Jin as the doctor’s wife gives a fine performance, as does newcomer Li Man, the young herbalist Chan. Some in the Chinese media have all ready dubbed her the new Gong Li.
By no means an action movie, Golden Flower does have two superbly choreographed set-pieces of screen carnage that underscores the film’s ruthlessness. The action choreography by Ching Sui-Tung is simply stunning. Gone is the excessive, dreamy slo-mo of previous Yimou films, replaced by a vicious and inventive bloodletting. The epic climax of the film is deliberately slower and more brutal as we watch an army systematically trapped and slaughtered. All I can say here is: eat your heart out Zack Snyder, because Ching’s footage of this sequence makes the blue screen antics of 300 look like Punch and Judy shadow play.
Ching also captures one of the rare flashes of humour in the picture when in a terrifying life and death situation one character turns to the other and says “you must be hiding something important from me!” Whether the subtitlers slipped up or not it’s an enjoyable throwback to a past era of Chinese cinema.
The savage irony of this story only becomes glaringly obvious in the film’s closing minutes — and what a truly Shakespearean moment it is! All in all, Curse of the Golden Flower is highly recommended.