Curse of the Golden Flower Review

Zhang Yimou’s 2006 film Curse of the Golden Flower is set during the period of the later Tang Dynasty in China when the monarchy was breaking up and the hegemony of Chinese culture was about to decline. It was a time of tremendous lavishness but also disastrous corruption and misgovernment – beauty a disguise for rot. Yimou’s film tells the story of a family, headed by the Emperor Dragon (Chow Yun Fat) who has a second wife (Gong Li), whom he does not love, and three sons. As he ages, he finds his second son, Prince Zai is becoming increasingly headstrong and his return to the imperial palace is the instigator for a series of calamities which will tear the family apart.

On first viewing Curse of the Golden Flower, my reaction was to wonder why all this talent and artistry – and the skills of a major director – were being wasted on a plot which is, at best, the standard of Jacqueline Susann and, at worst, on the level of an average episode of Dynasty. It’s a bit like hiring Rembrandt and then asking him to touch up the paintwork on your kitchen cupboards. But subsequent viewing have convinced me that I was mistaken because what we have here is a full-blooded melodrama in the spirit of Hollywood during the 1940s and 1950s where great talent was expended on material which should have been embarrassing but which worked because it was approached with absolute conviction. At no point in Curse does Yimou wink at us or suggest that this is all a bit too campy to be taken seriously and the result is that the film gains an emotional hold which goes beyond its airport pot-boiler elements. The obvious comparison is with the work of Nicholas Ray, Vincente Minnelli or even Douglas Sirk and it’s one which the cine-literate Yimou would be delighted with.

It’s this emotional hold, and indeed intensity, which makes Curse the best film that Yimou has made since the days of Raise The Red Lantern and The Story of Qui Jui because, for this viewer, it successfully unites his skills as an action director – which are in the Peckinpah class – with his brilliant ability to get inside character and social circumstance in a way which Hero and House of Flying Daggers never tried to do. In a sense, Yimou has been in this territory before with his majestic and deliriously overheated 1990 film Ju Dou. That film shared many of the same themes – patriarchal repression, illicit sex, infidelity, and the disastrous breakdown of familial relations. It also had Gong Li, about whom more later. This early film showed that Yimou wasn’t afraid of melodrama and understood that if played with the right degree of conviction, it has the ability to grip an audience like nothing else, while all sorts of subversive themes are worked in through the back door. Ju Dou was often close to ludicrous and so is Curse of the Golden Flower but we don’t look away for an instant because the world that Yimou creates is so convincing and the characters so magnetic.

On a visual level, Curse is just as stunning as Raise the Red Lantern and Hero and considerably more impressive than House of Flying Daggers. It’s a lavish production with the central palace set occupying a vast amount of Beijing studios in the grand tradition of Samuel Bronston’s epics from the 1960s. But the opulence is making a point – like Visconti and Bertolucci, Yimou is fascinated by the notion that decay is never more virulent than when covered up by exterior beauty. Just as the beautiful golden chyrsathemums are a symbol of betrayal, so is the opacity of the richly decorated Chinese art glass a sign that nothing is ever as transparent as it might be. Xiaoding Zhao’s cinematography is a major achievement with every frame looking like a hand-painted illustration from an ancient book of myths. Nowhere, however, is the film more stunning than in its use of colour. Indeed, it’s one of the great colour movies along with such films as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, Lust for Life, The Leopard and Suspiria with colour used to devastating emotional effect.

The reds, blues and golds are intoxicating, notably in the palace interiors and the scene of the gold-clad warriors storming the palace at the end is an image which will remain with me for a long time.

But impressive though the final battle is, both in scale and choreography, what really engages the attention, and the emotions, is what’s going on inside. While the second son, Prince Jai, fights for his mother’s reputation, the rest of the family get together and tear each other apart. One ought to laugh at how ridiculously histrionic it is but there’s real sincerity and even fervour in Yimou’s vision of a royal family destroying itself and his images have a slightly overheated passion – nowhere more so than when the Emperor dispenses with the silly crown and takes a leaf out of every working class Yorkshire father’s book by tekkin’ ‘is belt to t’young ‘un. There’s obviously an important message being delivered here about the decadence of the ruling class but, like Visconti in The Damned, Yimou knows full well that the level on which it really works best is soap opera.

In so sumptuous a visual feast as this, one might expect the performances to take second place but, thanks to the presence of two genuine stars, they don’t. The secondary roles are all done well with newcomer Jay Chou managing to be perfectly convincing in the one note role of Prince Jai and veteran Dahong Ni giving the imperial doctor a welcome dose comic pomposity. But the action is in the middle with a battle of wills between Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li. Much has been written on DVD Times about Gong Li’s brilliance and I’m not going to demur. One longed to see more of her in her Hollywood roles in Miami Vice and Memoirs of a Geisha so it’s a joy to see her get a huge tragic part she can get her teeth into. The character of the Empress is another of Yimou’s downtrodden women, albeit on a higher social level than before. She realises that her situation is hopeless but she rebels anyway because her spirit – and the knowledge that her husband is killing her slowly - will allow her to do nothing else. Li’s finest hour in the film comes when she delivers the coup-de-grace to the family, revealing the terrible central family secret with absolutely calm assurance.

Her stillness here is inspired and even more impressive than her histrionics elsewhere. In the circumstances, Chow Yun Fat could have phoned in his performance but he’s actually very impressive, giving the rather despicable Emperor a note of noble bearing and thoughtfulness which doesn’t seem to be in the dialogue. I don’t find him a tragic figure particularly, certainly not in the Shakespearean sense. But Chow Yun Fat is very good at reacting and acting off the line. It’s a big part and could have provided an opportunity for some serious scenery chewing but this actor is too dignified and canny to do that. His moment of self-realisation at the end is evoked with great subtlety and for a moment, he looks completely helpless as he stands there, blood streaming from his belt and his hair unkempt.

A filmmaker as brilliantly talented as Yimou crosses the line from artist into visionary and Curse of the Golden Flower demonstrates that he doesn’t need to divide his work into personal projects and blockbusters. Much of his best work is torn from the same organic cloth; a vision of corruption, crippling social ritual and patriarchal domination which is complex, satisfying and moving. Curse of the Golden Flower is not quite in the same league as Raise the Red Lantern - how many films are? But it’s a fully achieved, beautifully fashioned work which achieves a level of grand, horrifying operatic tragedy that renders comparisons with Shakespeare not entirely inappropriate.

The Disc

Universal’s R2 release of Curse of the Golden Flower is not flawless but it does, most importantly, offers a fine visual presentation of this most sedulously furbished of films.

It’s presented at an aspect ratio of 2.40:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. Definition throughout is extremely good, if slightly short of excellent, and there is plenty of detail to be relished, particularly on the costumes. At some points, you can see every bead of sweat on Gong Li’s delectable forehead. The all-important colours come across quite beautifully with rich saturation and perfect skin tones. If I’m being a bit stingy in my praise it’s because I can imagine a version of this film looking so gorgeous you’d want to hang it on your wall as a painting and this doesn’t quite have that absolute ‘wow’ factor.

The soundtrack in Mandarin 5.1 is splendidly immersive during the action sequences and eminently crisp and clear during the dialogue. The pounding of Shigeru Uumebayashi’s music score gets a boost from the .1 LFE. I gather, however, that the DTS on the Region 3 disc is even better. There are English subtitles which are burnt-in, unfortunately, but they are at least in elegant, small, white script. An example is given below:

The extra features are mostly EPK type featurettes which don’t offer much insight into the film. “Secrets Within” is an American piece which seems designed to introduce the film to a potentially unreceptive public. As these things go, it’s not bad but everyone is on their best behaviour and tend to mouth platitudes about how great it was to work on the film. “The Emperor” is just a collection of interview snippets from Chow Yun Fat, most of which are also in the “Secrets Within” piece. The same goes for Gong Li’s interviews in “The Empress”. Given the potential such a lavish film gives for extra material, this is disappointing. The photo gallery is a collection of stills from the film backed by the music. Two trailers are included for the film and there are also sneak previews on the disc for Atonement and Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

The film is wonderful and one which withstands multiple viewings – a couple are needed just to take in the stunning visual design. This R2 DVD makes it look very good indeed but it’s a shame that the extras are just repetitive promotional fluff.

9 out of 10
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out of 10

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