Curse of the Golden Flower is a tale about (fictional) Chinese Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat) and the conflict that exist between the members of his family. Having married into the royal bloodline Emperor Ping’s ascendancy is a source of great controversy but with his wife, Empress Phoenix (Gong Li), sleeping with her stepson Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye) a sequence of tragic events is soon set in motion that will not only eclipse the Emperor’s rise but see the Imperial court running red with blood.
This film represents a change in direction for film director Zhang Yimou. Where both his previous action epics (Hero and House of Flying Daggers) were fast paced and light on their feet, allowing characters to (literally) fly through the air and perform miraculous feats, Curse of the Golden Flower is heavy handed and plodding in its approach to both its characters and story.
This, to begin with, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The film definitely demands a more rigid and rooted approach to its subject matter, with Yimou depicting a world that is cut off from outside influence and freedom. It is one where ritual and tradition have imprisoned the inhabitants of the imperial palace. However, as Curse of the Golden Flower progresses it becomes burdened by its director’s choices.
One scene in particular sees the Emperor reuniting with his second son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), on the battlefront. Clad in full, gold plate armour, the Emperor – while not appearing to struggle under the various layers – certainly is encumbered, having to sit down on a chair brought in by his bodyguard. The wonderfully detailed armour while representing both his authority and prowess also becomes an effective metaphor for the film itself. Yimou’s obsession and attention to detail, while admirable, manages to weigh down and suffocate not only his characters but his audience too.
Initially, the tension that is generated within the palace walls is palpable and claustrophobic – but the story about the feuding royal family soon collapses under it’s own weight. With Curse of the Golden Flower director Zhang Yimou, whom I still consider a master of high art cinema, slips into costumed melodrama that is comparable to bad Bollywood cinema.
The plot does little to hold one’s interest because it hardly ever leaves the confines of the palace walls and is extremely convoluted, with numerous twists and schemes. These aspects wouldn’t have been so much a concern, however, had the fight sequences – something Yimou’s films are famous for – been more spaced out and balanced. The action sequences are virtually non-existent in the first half of the film, with Yimou opting to save the fireworks right till the end.
The big finale is, from a technical standpoint, visually impressive but the massive battle sequence, between hundreds of men in the Imperial court, is overblown and does more to damage the film than anything else. The low-key – almost espionage-like – qualities of the first half of the film are thrown completely off kilter by the hundreds of armed soldiers at the end. It appears the $45 million budget (the Chinese film industry’s most expensive ever) went to Yimou’s head because what you get is the fourth installment of The Lord of the Rings. Gone is the subtlety and beauty of his previous period, action films.
Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat – joined by a cast of talented performers – do their best but they struggle to keep this bloated project, about a dysfunctional family from the 10th century, afloat. I’m sad to say it but Curse of the Golden Flower has officially ended my fascination with the epic Asian film.