Though the trailer for Curse of the Golden Flower makes it look like another high-speed martial arts picture from the director of House of Flying Daggers, the movie is actually an exquisite melding of Zhang Yimou's two signature styles, the historical drama and art-house wuxia. It should please both sides of moviegoers divided by the two phases of Yimou's career, appealing to fans of Raise the Red Lantern and Hero alike. And for those of us who've been digging it all, Curse of the Golden Flower is a splendid treat.
Based on a stage play by Cao Yu, Curse of the Golden Flower is a drama about the court of Emperor Ping, a figure from the late Tang Dynasty. Chow Yun-Fat, complete with a regal beard, plays the ruler, and his presence is befitting a king. Whether he is decked out in gold armor or feebly stepping onto his throne, his body aching from the battles he's just returned from, Ping is an imposing man. He is coming back to the palace for the Chrysanthemum Festival, and it's put the court on high alert. His legions of servants are preparing everything down to the last detail.
The forthcoming reunion is also causing ripples among the Emperor's family. His current wife, Empress Phoenix (Gong Li, Miami Vice), suffers from anemia, a condition she tries to alleviate every two hours with a noxious brew prescribed to her by her husband and the Imperial Physician (Ni Dahong, To Live). Her real ailment is probably boredom, however, which is likely why she has been having an affair with her stepson, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye, The Promise), for the last three years. In turn, Wan is cheating on her, sneaking around with the servant Chan (newcomer Li Man), the girl who brings the Empress her medicine.
Naturally, that is only the beginning of the complications. Imperial courts tend to have little to do but feed on each other, providing real life precursors to modern television soap operas. The Emperor has tired of his wife, and he's been instructing his Physician to add a poisonous fungus to her medicinal potion. The doctor is more than happy to do comply. Between this sinister plot and his daughter's relationship with the Crown Prince, his family can only advance.
The only thing that barring Wan from the seat of power is his own lack of a spine. Having seen his eldest son's void of talent, the Emperor has been grooming his second son, the Empress' first offspring, Jai (Jay Chou, Initial D). Jai has been on the battlefield with his father, where he redeemed himself enough for previous rebellious acts, he's going to be moved to the pole position.
Finally, rounding out the family is the youngest prince, Yu (Junjie Qin, also a first-timer). He seems innocuous at first, the little brother who is always running to catch-up. And yet, Yimou keeps revealing him in places he should not be, lurking around corners at all the right times to eavesdrop on sensitive conversations.
The Chrysanthemum Festival is an auspicious event. The massive courtyard of the palace is filled with the yellow flowers, and the Empress has been embroidering chrysanthemum designs out of gold thread. Little does anyone know that these will be the symbols of her coup. The Emperor is pleased to be bringing his family together for the celebration, and when it comes to dissension in his ranks, he is out of the loop. That's a critical error in a classic tragedy. What you know and who knows that you know is crucial to staying alive. Being aware of her own poisoning and some rotten skeletons from her husband's past makes it appear that the Empress holds all the cards, but the path to the throne is not so simple. Her plot will be met with counterplots, and a bloody battle will have to be fought before all the revelations can be made.
The story may sound complicated, but Zhang Yimou is extremely aware of where his characters are positioned strategically, and he leads his audience through the palace with absolute confidence. Along the way, he allows us to gorge on all the marvelous confections our appetites can handle. He is just as concerned with the day to day life of the palace as he is the intrigues of its rulers, and he goes to great lengths to let us peek behind the gorgeous decorations and see the people who set them all up. Every task seems to take three or more workers. Just to get her medicine, the Empress has four servants: one to present the medicine, a second to carry the cleanser for her mouth, a third with the spit cup, and a fourth with towels to wipe her lips. Reteaming with production designer Huo Tingxiao, who collaborated with him on Hero and Flying Daggers, and bringing on costume designer Chung Man Ye (So Close), Yimou has taken precise care to bring the Tang Dynasty to life for modern audiences, effectively erasing the eleven centuries between them. There's never a visually dull or unbelievable moment on screen, Curse of the Golden Flower is always sumptuous viewing.
Curse of the Golden Flower also marks the reunion of Zhang Yimou with Gong Li, who was his muse for most of his early films. Li has always been a tremendously soulful actress. For Empress Phoenix, she is playing a woman who is racing against time. She knows what she must do, and that includes continuing to take the poison so as not to alert her enemy. The fungus is destroying her mind, bringing on more and more violent attacks. Li has to show the ravaging effects of seizures while still maintaining the monarch's vanity. As usual, even as she grows more ashen and fractured, it's impossible to take your eyes off of her.
The most heartbreaking scene for the Empress, however, is not one where the poison is tearing her down, but it's the first time she finds Wan with the servant girl. For a woman in a marriage of convenience who is growing older, it must be agonizing to feel jilted by a lover whom must also call you "mother." When she exposes the tryst, the Empress can barely hold it together. Gong Li, her skin as pale and smooth as an egg, looks like she might shatter.
In addition to Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat, the rest of the cast display exceptional talent. All of the young male actors manage to imbue their princes with an individual personality. Junjie Qin is smarmy and petulant, while Jay Chou displays quiet strength, going from humble warrior to outraged son. (Chou also does double-duty as the performer of the movie's final theme.) As the Crown Prince, Liu Ye is nervous and put-upon, usually looking like he wishes everyone else would just leave him alone, only ever getting comfortable when he is alone with Chan. They have a tender, playful scene together just before the Empress breaks in on them that is both sensual and sweet. Li Man is an alluring new discovery. She is radiant in the small role, and she gets to show a good range. Chan begins as opportunistic and coquettish, but when the chips are down, she proves that she really cares for Wan.
There are only a couple of fight sequences, including a duel between Jay Chou and Chow Yun-Fat where the two men bang on each other with heavy swords. The climax isn't a martial arts showdown, however, but the clashing of two gargantuan armies. As he proved in Hero, Yimou is unparalleled when it comes to putting a lot of troops on the screen. In Golden Flower, the rebels and the Imperial Guard square off within the confining walls of the Palace, right on top of the chrysanthemum beds, and it's a bloodbath.
I could go on and on digging into more and more aspects of Curse of the Golden Flower, but then there would be nothing left for you to go and see. I loved this movie, and I continue to be impressed by the roll Zhang Yimou has been on. (Don't forget, he also released the contemporary family drama Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles this year.) In my assessment, for as riveting of a thrill ride as House of Flying Daggers was (I would liken its plot/identity twists to vintage Hitchcock), Curse of the Golden Flower ratchets up the game by causing those twists to come through tropes of classic tragedy. The result is a plot that is just as involving but with consequences that are far more crushing. When Curse of the Golden Flower took its final breath, it was the first time I felt like I had exhaled for about twenty minutes. In a word: stunning.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.