If Shakespeare has taught us anything, it's that if you're part of a royal family, you probably want to avoid holidays that could have an ironic outcome. It doesn't matter when or where you rule. You're not even safe presiding over China during the Tang Dynasty.
In Zhang Yimou's latest historical epic, Curse of the Golden Flower, the Emperor Ping, played by a commanding Chow Yun Fat, is pleased to be bringing his family together for the annual Chrysanthemum Festival. The event is meant to symbolize and celebrate family unity, and since this is the first time in three years his middle son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), is back from gaining valuable life lessons on the battlefield, this particular Chrysanthemum Festival holds a special significance. Of course, this is all for show. The bond of this royal family is no more natural than the fields of the titular yellow flowers that have been strewn across the courtyard of the Forbidden City. Plants can't grow on stone, and love can't pierce the hardened heart. It is, however, an ostentatious regime--it takes four servants to serve one cup of medicine--and the Emperor will show off his family, whether they like him or not.
This dysfunctional family dynamic is especially complicated. The Emperor has been married once before, and the union bore him his first son, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye). That fate of that first wife is clouded in mystery, something the second wife, Empress Phoenix (a radiant Gong Li), would do well to remember. She has given her liege two sons, Jai and Yu (Qin Junjie). While Yu is still young and somewhat inconsequential to Palace life (much to his consternation), Jai is really the favored child, more suited to the throne than his older brother. The love Jai is shown is also laced with suspicion, however, as the Emperor fears he might make a grab for power too early. When they are reunited, the Emperor makes a show of this, as well, engaging his middle son in a duel to remind the young prince that the old man still has some moves left.
Part of the Emperor's mistrust of his son comes from his strained relationship with the boy's mother. A sickly woman, the Empress is barely on speaking terms with her husband. Even if there is no love in the royal bedchamber, that doesn't mean the palace is absent of passion. For quite some time, the Empress has been having an affair with her stepson. Meanwhile, Crown Prince Wan is also canoodling behind closed doors with Chan (newcomer Li Man), the daughter of the king's physician (Ni Dashong). While the Empress suspects that Chan is drawing Wan's affections from her, little does she know that Chan is also an agent of death. Emperor Ping has instructed his doctor to slowly poison Empress Phoenix, and the physician has given the task to his daughter, the servant who delivers the queen her medicine, every other hour on the hour. There is some question whether Phoenix is even sick at all, or if the years of being forced to take this bitter potion has just been Ping's way of sedating her. Either way, the mixture that is supposed to be saving her is now slowly killing her.
Such is the complicated tapestry that is Curse of the Golden Flower. With her loving son finally returned to her, Empress Phoenix is now going to make her move. She is embroidering thousands of crests featuring the golden chrysanthemum to adorn her revolutionary army, and she and Jai will stage a coup when the festival is in full swing. Naturally, along the way, a few more betrayals will come into play, and a few mysteries will be revealed, as several sins of the past come back to haunt all the members of Emperor Ping's corrupted bloodline. This is the way of the tragedy, and Curse of the Golden Flower is inevitably heading where all tragedies must go.
This is my second viewing of Curse of the Golden Flower, my first being during its theatrical run, and I enjoyed it even more this time around. The last time I saw it, I was busier piecing together the puzzle. This time, I understand who everyone is and what they are up to, and so I can appreciate the subtler motivations even more. Yimou's characters aren't one-sided, neither all good nor all bad. Even the Emperor, with his precise, controlling manner and compulsive need to present a strong fašade, only does so out of interest for the greater good. He wants to preserve the law and order of his kingdom, and he believes the best ruler leads by example. Though a monarch, Ping is still a man, and the revelation that he is aware of the relationship between his son and wife also exposes the bitter sting he's been living with. None of this excuses his cruelty, but it does make some of his actions understandable.
Likewise, Empress Phoenix is no mere Lady Macbeth with a simplistic will to power. Knowing that rebellion is the only way to survive her husband's murder plot, she begins by seeking to live up to her own name and rise from the ashes of her disastrous marriage. In some ways, she is also crusading for female pride, her revenge on Emperor Ping avenging his first wife by proxy. Even when she is playing pale and sickly, Gong Li is still resplendent. There is no question as to why she is the center of male attention in the royal palace. Even those who aren't let in on her plot fall on their sword out of jealousy at not being included.
For those who come to Curse of the Golden Flower looking for the action they saw in Yimou's more popular films, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, there is plenty here, though it's not nearly the focus it was in those two films. There are several battles involving the Emperor's ninjas trying to put one of his skeletons back into its closet. Also, the coup itself, as Jai leads his small army into the Forbidden City, is both awe-inspiring as grand spectacle and gutwrenching as the blood flows in very personal ways. Zack Snyder could have cribbed some notes from Zhang Yimou before making 300. When Jai leads his tiny force against a much larger foe, it is easily more noble and exciting than the whole of Snyder's fluffed-up gladiator movie.
As usual, Yimou's art direction--here provided by Oscar-nominated costume designer Yee Chung Man and production designer Huo Tingxiao--is just as big a star of the movie as any of the actors. The imperial palace is recreated in exacting detail. Every inch of the frame is packed with decoration and color. As Empress Phoenix walks down the gaudy hallways of her royal prison, it looks like she is surrounded by great tidal waves of paint that will crash in on her at any moment. Similarly, her gowns tightly confine her, pushing up her bosom while constraining her waist, in service to the double-edge of beauty--the dresses make her look fabulous while also standing as a symbol of female repression. Yimou choreographs the movements of the clothes with as much care as he choreographs the clashing of swords in the fight scenes. Sleeves ripple, buttons pop, and hairpins go flying as Ping unleashes his fury, and blood stains Phoenix's embroidered emblems as if those waves had finally fallen, drowning the royal court. (To compare this picture to yet another overblown Hollywood movie, juxtapose how Yimou uses architectural symbolism in the last shot of Curse of the Golden Flower to Steven Zaillian's strained, overwritten ending to All the King's Men.)
Curse of the Golden Flower is the current apex of the most recent cycle of Zhang Yimou's career. He began exploring the art-house martial arts genre back with Hero, and ever since he's been slowly working his way back to the historical costume dramas that first earned him his reputation. Golden Flower is a tragedy of epic grandeur, transferring the personal calamities of his films like Raise the Red Lantern to a more mythic context. The result, as I noted in my first paragraph, is nothing short of Shakespearean, but with touches of beauty that are 100% Yimou.
The first documentary is the 22-minute "Secrets Within," your basic behind-the-scenes featurette. It covers the genesis of the movie, the director and the main actors, and the construction of the set and costume design. Some of the footage of the production being put together is quite impressive, and Zhang Yimou talks in depth about the themes and the meaning of the film.
There is also a two-and-a-half minute compilation of footage of Yimou, Yun Fat, and Li on the red carpet at the Los Angeles premiere last November.