Sony // 2006 // 114 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // August 2nd, 2007
Unspeakable secrets are hidden within the Forbidden City.
Yimou Zhang has been visually dazzling moviegoers over the last several years with films that host a compelling mix of drama and breathtaking action, smothered in a sauce of lush and vibrant visuals. Strangely enough, his films seem to have gone largely overlooked for one reason or another. And with the release of his latest film Curse of the Golden Flower, do we have something that goes through old ground, or elevates in into Raise the Red Lantern type of praise?
Zhang adapted Yu Cao's play, where the main focus is an Emperor in 10th century China. Within this family, there is the patriarch Ping (Chow Yun-Fat, Hard Boiled), who has endured a marriage to his wife (Gong Li, Miami Vice) for years, as she has a lineage to greater wealth and power. But he has been slowly introducing a poison to a medication that she is forced to take daily. She raises Ping's son from his first marriage (his wife had died several years before) and even engages in an affair with him, and she also gives birth to two others. She is aware of her husband's poisoning of her, becoming increasingly convinced that she doesn't even have a sickness, and she decides to plot to overthrow her husband, hopefully with the help of her sons.
Yimou Zhang made the international (read: American) crowd stand up and take notice with Raise the Red Lantern, which was released several years before. And when it comes to his body of work, not being too familiar with it personally, he has managed to redefine his career among the eyes of many people. He's managed to do this while at the same time, creating a small niche of cinema that successfully blends epic vision, romantic or emotional tales, and absolutely amazing wire action, with probably more genuine, non computer generated sequences than one might think. And while his last three films share the common overall traits of epic action and drama, set in period-piece China, they explore various character personalities that set them apart. In Hero you had the story of the main character, and a compelling one at that with action sequences unseen since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In House of Flying Daggers, the action might have been raised a bit more, but the stories of the characters were interwoven far more in this film, making for some great twists and turns and, for my money, one of the best films of 2004.
Curse of the Golden Flower pares the action down quite a bit, and puts the focus on a family whose relationships are rapidly eroding beyond repair. Ping's wife, Phoenix, rebels and refuses to take the medicine given to her, but Ping puts together an elaborate setting with the family sitting around a table to demonstrate the "need" for her to take the medicine. Phoenix is engaging in a near-incestuous affair with her stepson Wan (Ye Liu, The Foliage), but she also urges her other sons to take up arms against their father after she finds out the source of the poison. For the woman who informs her of this, there is a surprising twist to the story that you are stunned to see happen, and then her and her family attempt to evade assassination by Ping's warriors. The story builds to a head, and when the pressure cooker boils over and the inevitable rebellion occurs, it really is what you expect it to be. When Ping learns of the betrayal, it's a final confirmation that it's on like Donkey Kong, so sit yourself down and prepare to be amazed by what is going to transpire.
If there's something that detracts from the overall film, it's that the performances of the supporting cast seem so docile and without indulgence. Consider the supporting cast of Zhang's previous films for a second; Tony Leung (Lust, Caution), Maggie Cheung (2046) and Ziyi Zhang appeared in Hero. Zhang and Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs) were in House of Flying Daggers), the supporting cast should have been given the chance to stretch their dramatic legs, as some of them might have some charisma. They do manage to put in commendable performances, but the ones to watch are the main two. Chow Yun-Fat is remarkably restrained as Ping, the real performance to watch is Gong Li. She is the main focus of the film, and her role as a woman straining to break out of the oppression she faces is a revelation.
>From a technical perspective, the 2.35:1 MPEG-4 encoded transfer has got to bring the goods, in order to support the wide variety of colors in the film. And there's still enough to see the level of detail in the tighter shots too, like Ping's hair, or the smudges of gold lipstick on Phoenix's mouth. This disc is definitely up to the task. The PCM soundtrack is just as good, maybe even better. The first and second act don't have a lot going on during the film, but when the action takes off, there is a lot of surround activity with the air warriors, the drums during some of the ceremonial sequences resonate in your subwoofer, and it's a worthwhile sounding experience.
It appears that at times, the lush coloring was done more for the sake of doing it than anything else. If the point was to show how excessive this particular dynasty was, well, mission accomplished. Aside from that, some of the fight sequences seem a bit unimaginative than even some of Zhang's old films, but the overall film remains solid.
Curse of the Golden Flower is a fascinating film about family that sets off on a slow burn into a battle of epic proportions that few directors are able to accomplish. The fact that a Hong Kong action legend is at the head of some of these events makes it gravy. Its Blu-ray capabilities make the disc look beautiful in high definition, and it's definitely worth renting at the very least.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mandarin)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (Mandarin)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Making-Of Featurette
* Los Angeles Premiere
* Official Site
* Original DVD Verdict Review
* Gong Li Fan Site
* Chou Yun Fat Fan Site