If looks could kill, Judge Brett Cullum would stay the hell away from Gong Li.
Our reviews of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / Curse Of The Golden Flower / House Of Flying Daggers (Blu-Ray) (published July 31st, 2009) and Curse Of The Golden Flower (Blu-Ray) (published August 2nd, 2007) are also available.
Emperor Ping: What I do not give, you must never take by force.
I remember when this film came out in general release I was dazzled by the imagery that danced around in the theatrical trailers. It looked like we had another eye candy buffet coming straight out of China, replete with amazing action. Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (known in the US as Curse of the Golden Flower) is a well designed medieval royal family melodrama that could easily rival The Lion In Winter for witty dialogue and royal intrigue. The Chinese Tang Dynasty becomes the setting of Yimou Zhang's (Hero) latest epic, an immaculately created and artfully interpreted costume melodrama. The biggest question is whether "wire Fu" fans will find the finery and family plots of this story as satisfying as other more action-packed pictures from China.
Facts of the Case
Curse of the Golden Flower takes place in the Forbidden City Palace during the short-lived Tang Dynasty of the 10th Century. We find the Chinese royal family preparing for an annual Chrysanthemum festival, and the palace is abuzz with preparations for the return of Emperor Ping (Chow Yun Fat, Bulletproof Monk). Everything is glowing with candles and flowers strewn throughout the courtyard and crystal corridor's creating a beautiful paradise. The ruling family's perfect image is only masking the real turmoil that plays out behind the castle walls.
The Empress (Gong Li, Miami Vice) is being slowly poisoned by her husband who only ascended to the throne by marrying her. It seems their marriage is one of convenience, largely defined by power rather than any real love. Neither of them are particularly committed to each other. She's having an affair with his oldest son (Crown Prince Wan played by Le Yu, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress) from a previous marriage. She also seems in ill health and obsessed with sewing intricate flowers for a mysterious reason. The middle son, violent warrior Prince Jai (Jay Chou, The Age of Tattoo), returns from fighting the Mongols and appears faithful to his father's cause. There's also a bratty youngest son (Qin Junjie in his film debut) who feels ignored and insignificant. The whole movie follows the machinations and betrayals each family member pulls out of their royal golden sleeves against each other.
Don't expect anything inside Curse of the Golden Flower as historically accurate. For Yimou Zhang, the movie is an exercise in historical fantasy with many modern elements peppered throughout. It takes place in a hyper-stylized universe completely of the director's imagination. It's a wondrous experience full of eye candy. The source material is a famous Chinese play, originally produced and set in the 30s. Zhang has kicked everything back more than a millennium to create a Shakespearean tragedy which plays out like a Chinese soap opera headed towards an inevitable gloomy end. The glitter of the golden sets creates an ironic counterpoint to the dark drama. Many crystal colored glass columns adorn the palatial sets, and their unique glow sets a colorful theme of what is hiding deep within. I've never seen costumes or sets this well done. The movie rivals Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! for wild and excessive design.
Action fans who come to Curse of the Golden Flower expecting amazing martial arts and epic battles will find the movie slow and plodding. The real battles take place at dinner tables, behind golden screens, and during whispered conspiratorial conversations. As in any great melodrama, every family member has a secret and the intrigue is created in the slow revelation of each character's agenda. The drama and characters outweigh any action, and the epic battles are only grace notes to schemes and hidden intentions. There are a few well done action scenes and one glorious final battle, but the first hour is devoid of any action in order to properly set up the complex story. Secret alliances emerge, and we find out this royal family is a dysfunctional mess ready to disintegrate. High drama is the order of the day, and the movie plays out like Greek tragedy.
To create an intense dramatic tapestry, Yimou Zhang had to cast strong actors to pull off the script which, in the wrong hands, might have become laughable with its intense lines and serpentine machinations. The two key roles of the the Emperor and Empress had to be filled by actors who could make us believe in a grand struggle between unbreakable wills. He chose to reunite with his ex-lover and muse Gong Li who seems perfectly at home striding through golden palace hallways with her lips pursed and breasts heaving. She brings the sense of grand drama and self determination the actress is known for, most notably working with the director on their previous hit Raise the Red Lantern. Her work is simultaneously subtle and larger than life as she provides the appropriate emotion to grand rituals as well as the quiet reserve which hides her true power. As a counterpoint to Gong Li's volatile strength, the director hired Chow Yun Fat to play the stoic grand Emperor who remains disturbingly calm even in battle. He's quiet and deadly, always ready for a fight. These two actors crackle with intensity when they are on the screen; they throw knives and spears with only a glance across the table.
The sons are played by rising actors, including a pop singer making his first big movie (Jay Chou). They all bring an appropriate level of youthful energy to their pivotal roles as pawns of the stronger parents. It's a great ensemble, and they pull off the intense dialogue and complex motivations beautifully. The acting is as stylized as the ornate sets, but it is just as well crafted.
Sony has delivered on the DVD treatment of Curse of the Golden Flower where it counts the most. The beautiful sets and magnificent score are treated well in an anamorphic transfer and full surround mix. The movie works best on the big screen, but they've done an admirable job getting the elements right for us to enjoy a home viewing almost as much. The hyper color palette pops with aggressive attention to contrast and black levels. Sounds and whispers move around the room in all five speakers in a well designed audio field. Technically, Sony has delivered a royal treatment for the film, and it's an amazing authoring job.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there's anything to complain about with the DVD, it's the lack of extras. We do get a solid 20-minute look at the making of the film with a behind-the-scenes featurette, but there's so much going on visually and character-wise that a commentary or more in-depth look is sorely missed. Interview footage from a Los Angeles premiere runs barely two and a half minutes, and offers little other than red carpet sound bites that don't reveal much you couldn't glean from the making-of featurette. Trailers are included for a variety of Sony's foreign films with everything from Volver to Kung Fu Hustle represented; surprisingly, none of the incredible spots created for this feature made it onto the disc.
The first half of Curse of the Golden Flower creeps. It is purposefully slow, but all of the cultural touchstones will fly right over the heads of American viewers, who will wonder about the significance of the events. Though there are incredible actors moving their way through stunning design, there's little else going on for what seems like an eternity. To add to the frustration of the pace, none of these characters are sympathetic; some border on unlikable. They are cold, aloof creatures who look beautiful but seethe with anger and remorse throughout the film. When the action begins with a crazy ninja raid on a village complete with hooks and wires, it's a relief that the story is finally going to move. Yimou Zhang is known for his handling of cultural drama. He only uses the action as punctuation, yet the movie has been marketed here in the States as a martial arts picture. Don't expect Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, because this is first and foremost a costume drama with only touches of violence. The film owes more to the Merchant Ivory tradition than to the rock 'em sock 'em vibe of Bruce Lee features. The largest action piece relies on rather obvious CGI elements, and doesn't ring as realistic as the rest of the movie.
Curse of the Golden Flower is a sumptuous visual feast with wonderful acting. It's an exercise in style with breathtaking design elements. The drama overpowers any action sequences; it's a stunning well-crafted tale of royal intrigue. Everything about the film is epic and over the top. There are impressive action sequences late in the two-hour running time, but don't come in expecting the fights to be the centerpiece. This is more a story of a family coming together to fall apart rather than an action epic. With the right expectations, Curse of the Golden Flower delivers a satisfying ride through a fanciful world where words are crueler than swords.
Sony certainly gives the film its due with a stunning technical presentation, but only provides a couple of cursory extras for a film that begs for more. The DVD looks as polished as the production when you are watching the feature, but not enough light is shed on what the film means in context with the culture it was produced. Yimou Zhang has created an epic that comments on how far China has come but also how much further it needs to go, but none of this is explained in-depth. The power of the DVD format is the home experience can offer more insight into films like Curse of the Golden Flower, but we're not given too much. Still, this is a solid presentation of a visual masterpiece that is well worth looking into.
Guilty of being a beautiful royal melodrama, Curse of the Golden Flower dazzles as it provides immaculate scenery for two great Chinese actors to chew on.
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Scales of Justice
• Making of Featurette
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