Set in 928 A.D., at the tail-end of the Tang Dynasty, Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower takes place largely inside the imperial palace, where all conduct is strictly regulated by the court’s elaborate system of rules and customs. The empress cannot walk from one room to another without a phalanx of attendants, nor must she ever open or close a door for herself, and even her own sons must bow and greet her as “your majesty.” Human nature being what it is, though, this strict adherence to ceremony and deference to authority is no more than a façade; when they think no one is looking, both the imperial family and some of the cheekier members of the court engage in the sort of behavior that would make your grandmother choke on her ribbon candy.
The film’s plot is based on the incendiary 1934 play Thunderstorm by Cao Yu, one of the founders of modern Chinese theater, but Zhang’s transposition of the action seeks to give the film a grand, mythic resonance, with echoes of Hamlet, King Lear, and Sophocles. Zhang has said that his central theme derives from the old Chinese saying “Gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside” — the beauty of the court is only a mask for its treachery and dissolution. As the film opens, the empress (Gong Li, working with Zhang for the first time in over a decade, following the breakup of their personal relationship) is awaiting the return of the emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) from a military campaign. Things haven’t been quiet in the palace during his absence; the empress’ lover and stepson, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye) has ended their liaison, to her disappointment, and has taken up with the daughter of the imperial doctor, Chan (Li Man). He longs to flee the palace for a quiet, provincial life with his lover, though both his obligations and his family’s hidden secrets will inevitably make his dream impossible. The empress, aware that she’s being slowly poisoned by the imperial doctor (Ni Dahong), has begun plotting a way out of her situation, and she calls upon her older son, Prince Jai (popular Taiwanese singer Jay Chou), for help. Prince Jai exemplifies the Chinese value called xiao — unconditional love, loyalty, and respect for a parent — but his xiao applies only to his mother. His relationship with his father is contentious — the emperor declares that he will give Jai many things, but what he doesn’t give must never be taken by force, but Jai is not a man to wait meekly for his father’s beneficence. And his younger brother, Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), still a few years shy of shaving, is precociously power-hungry, while the imperial doctor’s wife (Chen Jin) is interested in undermining the emperor for secret reasons of her own.
Zhang takes his time laying out these relationships and allowing the conflicts to bubble to the top, and the first half of the film is almost devoid of action scenes. What we get instead are sumptuously gorgeous visuals, as both the characters and the palace are tarted up in the most extravagant finery. With a budget of $45 million, Curse of the Golden Flower is the most expensive Chinese film to date, and the money is all onscreen — in the palace, a reproduction of the Forbidden City adapted to Tang Dynasty architectural style, which is the largest set in Chinese film history, and in Yee Chung Man’s decadently elaborate costumes, a combination of Tang Dynasty and French Empire. Those familiar with Zhang’s use of color in his earlier films will not be surprised by its richness here, yet it’s impossible not to be impressed by extravagant lengths his crew has gone to, creating decorative glass pillars that radiate multicolored light and filling the palace’s courtyard with close to a million flowers for the film’s climactic chrysanthemum festival. Everything about it is gorgeously over the top, much like the family melodrama that occasions it.
The problem is that the melodrama never quite reaches the necessary boiling point. Zhang takes so long to establish the complexities of the court and gives us so few characters to care about — essentially just the empress and Prince Jai — that much of the film seems like unnecessary time spent with characters we’d just as soon not get to know so well. The performances are uniformly strong — though certainly Gong and Chow outshine their younger co-stars — but how many times can we see the emperor demonstrate his absolute power without it getting tired? And the shakeup we come to expect doesn’t quite work out as we’d hoped.
There’s a lot in Curse that does work — the familial conflict, the complex layers of hidden truths, and certainly the beautiful cinematography by Zhao Xiaoding — but it never comes together in a way that’s fully satisfying. We see what Zhang is saying about the way lies and secrets can tear a family apart and how expedient choices can come back to haunt us, but the film’s action never quite justifies its scale, so that we’re left with a presumptive epic that is ultimately too narratively limited to qualify for the form. Zhang is reaching for Shakespeare but getting no further than Douglas Sirk.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Curse of the Golden Flower / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | December 23, 2006 | Comments ()