The Curse Of The Golden Flower Review
In his collaborations with producer Bill Kong, Zhang Yimou has had opportunity to indulge his more theatrical, or to be more specific, operatic side. In their two previous productions this exuberance has largely been shown through the expressionistic martial arts and the choice of big themes of national sacrifice and romantic love. In Curse of the Golden Flower, this scale is expressed more operatically through the internecine conflicts of the Emperor's family and the setting and ceremonies of the opulent Tang dynasty palace. Emphasis is given to character's interiors worlds and the power of the emotions that their apparrent luxury obscures. Thematically, it is a film that is more in keeping with Yimou's earlier works like Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad, films which concentrated on oppression and which articulated the particular nature of that oppression against women. Like these films, Curse of the Golden Flower stars Gong Li and unites her abilities as a compelling actress with Yimou's eye and sensitivity as a director. The early films were the movies of a man in love with an artist and Yimou's penchant for beautiful cinematography was balanced by a wholly satisfying dramatic centre. Some have argued that Yimou's films since his split with his long term lover, Li, have been hollow and superficial - movies in search of a human core. Indeed, Gong Li reportedly told Yimou after his recent epics that his work had gone back to being mere cinematography.
Li's concerns must have been resolved when she was offered the lead role in this film as she is present in a movie which could find itself open to the very criticism she had made. The film is as opulent an eye candy as you will ever see. Where in Hero and House of Flying Daggers the aesthetic was one designed to beautify the concepts of nobility and sacrifice, here the visuals are the wrapping paper of corruption. This beautiful cinematography and set design are in deliberate contrast to the affairs of the heart that the film concentrates upon, the sins and betrayals of the Emperor and his family. These sins are forced on all because of the iniquities that the Emperor's absolute power is based upon, and the film plays not unlike a Shakespearean tragedy of regal downfall. This interest in the inevitable corruption of power was hinted at in Hero where the King of Qin's necessary absolute power became a kind of curse - witness the Greek chorus of court officials pleading dogmatically "execute him". In this film, Chow Yun-Fat's canniving evil emperor lives with complete control and a toxic loneliness because of it. Yun-Fat rules his family much as he would his army: he demands the Empress takes "medicine" every two hours in order to cure her rebelliousness and he spies on his three sons to anticipate any challenges. In his dictator's eyes, rebellion is everywhere and criticism is treachery, in essence his power exists to ensure he is in control and his control ensures that his power is beyond question. Those who help him are either in the shadows such as his army of ninja like assassins, or they live for their usefulness and die if their knowledge becomes a threat to him. For what is a huge role, I feel that Yun-Fat does rather play it small and seeks to exude a smug unflustered evil that knows it can't be beaten. As an actor, he is robbed of his prime asset of charm and he rather cedes the limelight to Gong Li. I can't help feeling that he is miscast and not helped by direction that leads him to minimalism in a film which cries out for a performance.
With the attention given over to her, the main joy of this film is watching Gong Li work and revisiting Yimou's complete adoration of her. Li's acting has always had great range and this has been well illustrated with Yimou's films - her determined peasant wife in Story of Qiu Ju, her doomed performer in Shanghai Triad, and the complicated fourth wife in Raise the Red Lantern. In Curse of the Golden Flower, she plays a victim of the Emperor's fickle attentions who finds herself in a fight for her life as he wishes to crush her individuality. She discovers many of his secrets and hopes to replace his patriarchy with a kinder juster authority. Li manages a kind of pathetic grace and broken intensity and our compassion for her means that we get lost in her terrible fate regardless of any responsibility she may have for it. She comes to represent the feminine which is held in check by the Emperor's masculine mendacity. Li is, of course, terrific although she is a little let down by the operatic twists and turns that she brings to light and the film's excess of design comes to mirror the lack of subtlety in plotting. This may be an editing down issue as some of the continuity and pacing hurts the final act of the film which is often over the top in its developments or lacking a smoothness of momentum. I suspect a director's cut may come later which will deepen some of this exposition much as occurred with Hero.
My main criticism of the film is that its central tension of opulence and depravity undermines what is, after all, a glossy blockbuster. The movie is supposed to be an example of how absolute power corrupts and how the masculine seeks to destroy the feminine, but the film itself seems seduced by its own grandeur and loses its moral bearings and sensitivity at times. It is almost as if Yimou knew he needed to replicate the wu xia epics of before and then got lost in a different enterprise more like the great films he previously made with Li. I feel that Yimou was attempting to fuse the two strands of his work and realised along the way - perhaps in the editing suite - what his more recent audience would prefer. I am tempted to say that Li's criticism of Yimou's recent work is one that he has listened too much to and I am entirely happy that Yimou continues to make big epic films without the artistic credibility of his neo-realist pieces, and when this film sits squarely in the role of a blockbuster it is terrific. Ching Siu-Tung's action choreography is even better here than before as the fights enter a level of bloodiness that is his forte, Shigeru Umebayashi's score is both stately and thrilling, and the set design and photography is without compare. Some will despair at the excessive use of CGI in the final battle and the Matrix style slowmo does need a rest, but the operatic brilliance of this film is hard to resist. More recent fans of his work will bemoan the excess of artistic intention here, and those criticising Yimou for superficiality will find more evidence of decline as well. For me, an unashamed believer in Yimou's whole back catalogue, Curse of the Golden Flower is fabulous entertainment that reminds the world of Gong Li's brilliance. The film would be more successful if Yimou chose to follow the Del Toro example of keeping his blockbusters and personal pieces separate because he should be confident there is more than enough in either strands of his work to enjoy. Flawed, compromised yet brilliant - if you can't enjoy Yimou's latest work then I fear for you.
Edko release Curse of The Golden Flower in two editions, and the disc on review here is the normal sell through edition that is available from Hong Kong. The disc box comes with a dust sleeve with slightly different poster art to the box and the single disc edition features the film presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer is sharp and very clean with high levels of contrast and saturation. this suits the look of the film well and the impossibly vivid look contrasts well with some of the brutality of battle.
I watched the film on my projector and I was very happy with the quality of the image which easily exceeds Edko's shoddy work on House of the Flying Daggers, the only improvement I could imagine would be greater definition and I imagine that this film may be a thing of wonder on HD. The main feature comes with three surround options, two of which are in the original language. All of the surround tracks are well created in terms of ambient sound and balance between the rear and front speakers. The Cantonese 5.1 track is not the most convincing dub in terms of synching with lip movements and lacks the impact of the other tracks for this reason, and for a relative dullness in the music and effects. The two Mandarin tracks are more impressive and use the dramatic score and plentiful fight effects brilliantly but both don't always follow the dialogue in terms of spatial representation which is not a huge problem as nearly all dialogue is on screen rather than from behind the viewer. Both tracks are powerful, but the DTS track is immense in the battle sequences and succeeds in immersing the audience in the blood and thunder whilst keeping the excellent bass from overpowering the character's words.
Extras wise this single disc edition is a little light with perfunctory trailers, photo gallery and filmographies. The main extra of interest is the documentary "Secrets Within" which has clearly been made for the US market and consequently is aimed at people whose knowledge of cast and crew may be a passing one and consequently comes over as promotional fluff regardless of Yimou and cast's comments about the intent behind the film. Yun Fat comes over as genuinely pleased to be there and even drops hints about fancying Gong Li and the raspy American voiceover tells the viewer what to think during the 20 minutes or so of this featurette. Adequate English subtitles can be chosen for the interviews during this piece which are in Mandarin, but they also appear during the interviews which are in English. The filmographies are disturbingly brief and give equal space to the acting credentials of Gong Li and Jay Chou and any biography is in Chinese.
Great entertainment that should be allowed to be just that, but a film which is not as successful as Yimou's previous wu xia let alone the transcendent Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. This disc is a fine budget way to pick the film up before R2 and R1 versions appear later in the year. Not a triumph but still a cause for joy.