Curse of the Golden Flower will no doubt be seen as the capper to Zhang Yimou's recent trilogy of historical wuxia action epics. Though no doubt true, it's also something of a melding of the two halves of Zhang's filmmaking career. The latest project mixes elements of his earlier, politically-minded dramas (many of which starred former girlfriend Gong Li, who reunites with the director here for the first time since 1995's Shanghai Triad) and his more recent martial arts fantasies Hero and House of Flying Daggers. In fact, Golden Flower has much more character drama, political scheming, and royal palace intrigue than it does high-flying kung-fu action.
Set during the Tang Dynasty of 928 AD, the film chronicles the back-stabbing, double-dealing, and twisted romantic entanglements of the court of Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat). His royal concubine Empress Phoenix (Gong) is having an affair with her stepson, the Crown Prince Wan, as retribution against her husband's controlling ways. The Prince has his own motives for sleeping with Mom, but is actually in love with a pretty young handmaid who happens to be daughter to the Imperial Physician. As part of her duties, under strict direction of the Emperor this handmaid must deliver a cocktail of "medicine" to the Empress every two hours and make sure she drinks it down, a suspicious plot to be sure. Meanwhile, after a three year absence the Emperor's favorite son Prince Jai (pop star Jay Chou, previously seen in Initial D) returns home in time for the lavish Chrysanthemum Festival, for which the Empress has been busy embroidering thousands of decorative flowers to be worn on the robes of people she specifically chooses, another suspicious story thread. The royal couple also has a third son, the young and seemingly-naïve Prince Yu, who tires of always being obscured under the shadow of his older brothers.
These are but the tip of the movie's convoluted plot, which twists and turns through a labyrinthine maze of relationships and conspiratorial subterfuge until eventually climaxing in a daring coup attempt. As intricately scripted as it may be, the story too often gets lost in the web of its own ambiguity and clever misdirection. The picture is mainly held together by the strength of personality of its leads and the director's opulent visual design. Making a point that the period was a time of garish excess, every square centimeter of the enormous palace, including every piece of clothing or armor worn in it, is ostentatiously gilded in gold and jade. The women's heaving bustiers are trussed up so tightly it's no wonder they plot revenge against their husbands and lovers. Though it has far less action content than either Hero or House of Flying Daggers, when the time for battle comes, Zhang stages an amazingly choreographed siege involving thousands of soldiers swarming through the hallways and grounds of the palace. From start to finish, the film is truly a visual marvel to behold.
Unfortunately, in the final analysis Curse of the Golden Flower is decidedly the least of Zhang Yimou's historical fantasy trio. Its plot is too mired in excessive complications (more so even than Hero), and its characters are too cold to truly sympathize with. It also wraps up with a mood-breaking pop song over the end credits that is absurdly out of place. Even so, the picture offers many rewards to fans of the director's prior films, and would be judged an interesting if flawed work even on its own.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Curse of the Golden Flower has been released on the Blu-ray format by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The disc automatically opens with a lengthy Blu-ray promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Curse of the Golden Flower Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using MPEG4 AVC compression on a dual-layer 50 gb disc. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
This disc makes a good benchmark for how far the Blu-ray format, and Sony Pictures specifically, have come over the past year. Back in July of 2006, Sony released director Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers as one of their Blu-ray launch titles, and its quality was unimpressive to say the least. The video of that disc was distractingly soft and marred by digital compression problems and noise. Now, one year later, they've released the follow-up film from the same director and cinematographer, but this time prepared the transfer and disc authoring with a little more effort and care. No surprise at all, the results are light years improved over that previous disc.
The Golden Flower picture is, at least for the most part, pleasingly sharp and detailed. Specific shots have more depth and vibrancy than others, but the image looks faithful to the original photography and maintains a satisfying High Definition appearance throughout. The movie's color scheme is ablaze in golds and purples, all of which pop vividly (and garishly) off the screen as they should. Light film grain is frequently visible, but (unlike the Flying Daggers disc) is well compressed and rarely noisy. The contrast range, black levels, and shadow detail are solid and true. I wouldn't call the transfer quite perfect, but it's very good overall and a fine representation of the movie.
The Curse of the Golden Flower Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's Mandarin-language soundtrack (the disc menus refer to it simply as "Chinese") is provided in uncompressed PCM 5.1 format or in standard Dolby Digital 5.1. Like Zhang's last two wuxia films, Golden Flower has a phenomenal sound mix with an incredibly immersive sound field. There are more quiet dialogue passages this time around, but when the fantastic fight scenes come they feature sharply recorded effects surrounding you from every direction. The shriek of metal on metal pierces the soundstage with excellent fidelity. The drumming score is a little monotonous compared to the better music in Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but hits the low end nicely. Great work all around.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, English captions for the hearing impaired, or French.
Alternate language tracks - English DD 5.1.
The English subtitles are positioned half-in/half-out of the 2.35:1 movie image, which is a particular nuisance for many front projection users with dedicated 2.35:1 movie screens.
The bonus features on this Blu-ray title are duplicated from the DVD edition. All of the supplements from the Region 1 DVD have carried over, but that's not saying much.
The disc also has some trailers (in Standard Definition) for unrelated Sony movies, but none for Golden Flower.
- Secrets Within (22 min., SD) - A thick slice of EPK cheese, featuring the usual promotional nonsense and a horrible narrator. Topics skimmed over include the cast, locations and sets, costumes, and staging the action scenes. The featurette spells one character's name as "Prince Jie", even though the movie's subtitles spell it "Jai".
- Los Angeles Premiere (3 min., SD) - Unrevealing red carpet interviews with Zhang Yimou and Chow Yun-Fat. The disc offers optional English subtitles, but they're only captions for the English translator, not for anyone speaking Mandarin.
Hidden on the disc is a selection of HD test patterns. You can access these by entering 7669 on your remote control from the disc's main menu. Use the Skip button to page through the patterns.
It may not rise to the heights of either Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but Curse of the Golden Flower is another fascinating historical epic from Zhang Yimou. The Blu-ray offers excellent picture and sound quality that will make for fine home theater eye and ear candy. Recommended.
House of Flying Daggers (Blu-ray) - Zhang Yimou
Eros (DVD) - Gong Li
Zhou Yu's Train (DVD) - Gong Li
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