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My introduction to writer/director Yimou Zhang was his first foray into epic territory Hero. The film took the beauty of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and infused it with inventive and powerful storytelling a la Kurosawa’s Rashomon. As a result, the film was an amazing feat of technical and emotional brilliance. I still haven’t seen his follow-up, House of Flying Daggers, as it seemed a more cartoony look into the genre, with visual style pushed to the forefront while story is pushed back. With his newest film, Curse of the Golden Flower, the trailer made me think that Yimou went back to having a solid story to tell and added the visceral flourishes to enhance the underlying plot. I enjoy tales of imploding nobility and family fracturing at the level of power, seeing how people will betray blood against blood. Also, it just looked stunning—set pieces and cinematography alike. Upon seeing it, I could call it a masterpiece of style with a lush environment so detailed one can understand why it is the new leader in Chinese film budget. As a whole, however, the movie becomes a nice shiny wrapper with little to offer on the inside. We are given a simple morality tale injected with so much fluff and ritual that you almost get faked into thinking you have seen something much more profound than you actually have.

China is led by the Tang dynasty and an emperor with three heirs to take his mantle upon his death. The eldest was born by his first wife who has since died. Remarried to the daughter of another king, more out of political purposes than love, as we find out, he is given two more sons. We are thrust into the lives of this royal family at an important cusp of their history. All together for the first time in three years, they are about to celebrate the Chrysanthemum Festival in honor of family and duty. Under the surface, however, brews many secrets and tests that each member must face to decide on a path to take for the future. The emperor must decide which of his sons to give the crown to; the empress discovers that she is being poisoned into insanity; the eldest prince, Wan, realizes he is not of the mindset to rule although the crown is his to lose; the second son, Jai, is a deserving warrior whose love for his mother will always win out against the king; and the youngest son, Yu, is treated as a lap dog without regard or consideration for any real power. In true Greek tragedy form, the family falls apart and goes along a path to self destruction as all pick who they love more—father, mother, or themselves.

As far as the acting and aesthetic go, Curse of the Golden Flower is amazing. The authenticity is unimaginable and so vibrant it is tough to see everything in each frame. There is so much to look at, yet on almost every opportunity, your eyes will go to the truly enthralling cast. Gong Li is great as the matriarch slowly slipping deeper into dementia yet still trying for a sort of revenge. Her utter devastation as she learns the price her ill-thought coup comes with is heartfelt and real. Chow Yun-Fat is his usual steady self, a professional of the field. His emperor is one who leads with a strong fist where duty and obligation will always win out over the emotional ties of family that can cloud a weaker man’s judgment. By the end of the film we will see how all the atrocities could be attributed to him and what might be some sick test of loyalty to him. All other characters play their roles nicely and stay true to their positions in the Chinese feudal food chain. Thankfully each son is very different from the others and allow for unique story threads. Liu Ye plays the eldest son with the kind of trepidation and nervousness someone unsure with how their life shall progress would have. Jay Chou, on-the-other-hand, is great as the son caught between his parents to the point where he is no longer fighting for the crown, but letting love, which will never penetrate his father, take over his actions.

Everything built up eventually comes to a really successful climatic battle sequence. Thankfully Yimou pulls no punches and all characters finish their respective arcs in the way they have been evolving to. No one comes out in the end at a place in which they do not belong. Sadly the progression to that point is long and tiresome. I understand Yimou and the artistic director wanting to really show the era in all its glory, but the detail can get very tedious; this is not an historical epic, it’s a fictional drama. The continual use of extreme close up and cutting of everyday servant activities gets old fast. Also, the over-saturation of little superfluous things like the continual scraping and painted in sparks when swords collide, (show me the fight not the friction of the metal), overshadow the moments when artifice work, (the chase scene with Wan as we see streaks of color through the stain glass hallways). The story itself has moments of artificiality as well with many plot points being too crazy. Between the abundance of incest, the younger brother Yu’s odd smile—making him seem mentally retarded—and creepy close-ups while eavesdropping around the palace, and the many convenient twists, the story is so convoluted for no reason. The true impetus at work is a simple tale of loyalty and betrayal tearing a family apart at the seams. Unfortunately Yimou tried to beef up with trivialities that only hinder its success. Cut a good 30 minutes and the romance between Wan and the royal doctor’s daughter, (serving no purpose at all even when you think a jealous subplot will develop with his mother) and you’d have one of the best films of the year.

Curse of the Golden Flower 5/10

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photography:
[1] Left to Right: Jay Chow as Prince Jie, Gong Li as the Empress, Chow Yun Fat as the Emperor. Photo by: Ms. Bai Xiaoyan © Film Partner International Inc. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all right reserved.
[2] Scene from Curse of the Golden Flower. Photo by: Ms. Bai Xiaoyan © Film Partner International Inc. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all right reserved.

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