[%@*#, that’s aggravating. Movable Type just ate my entire review. Ok, let’s try this again.] A lush, operatic saga of a cancerous ninth-century family fracas that threatens to topple the Tang Dynasty from within, Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower is the type of film for which the cliche “sumptuous visual feast” was coined. True, this sordid tale of betrayal, corruption, incest, and time-release murder is overwrought to the point of self-parody, and the action sequences — like those in Zhang’s House of Flying Daggers — eventually veer well past rousing to the far corner of preposterous. But, my, is this film gorgeous to look at: From start to finish, Curse of the Golden Flower is an explosion of riotous color. (Particularly after sitting through two hours of Letters from Iwo Jima‘s bleak, monochrome grays, viewing the veritable kaleidoscope on display here felt even more sensuous and indulgent.) Throw in some very watchable performances by Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li, and others, and Curse comes across to me as the best entrant in Zhang’s recent trilogy of fanciful-historical Chinese epics (That would be Curse, Daggers, and the scarily nationalistic Hero — Fortunately the political subtext is more restrained and ambiguous here. In fact, Curse may even be revolutionary, depending on how you read the film’s final image.)
It is the hour of the rat for the Tang Dynasty, chrysanthemums bloom throughout the Middle Kingdom, and opulence comingles with palace intrigue in the halls of the Forbidden City. For the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat, both fierce and serene), in his Divine wisdom, has seen fit to slowly and secretly poison his Empress (Gong Yi, equally good), by means of a deathly black fungus added to her daily medicine. The Empress, meanwhile, strains to rekindle her romance with the Emperor’s first son (by a previous marriage), the Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), but he only has eyes for a fetching maid (Li Man) in the imperial employ. (In fact, she is the daughter of the doctor administering the poison.) And also residing in this increasingly broke down palace are the Princes Jai (Jay Chou) and Yu (Qin Junjie), both of whom discover they have their own roles to play in the schemes of their feuding parents, particularly after the ailing Empress weaves a plot of vengeance to coincide with the coming festival…
Also milling about the Forbidden City is a cast of hundreds: the cooks, maids, laborers, soldiers, ninjas (Yes, this film has ninjas, or at least their Chinese equivalent), and ladies-in-waiting that make up the infrastructure undergirding the Tangs’ divine rule. Zhang goes out of his way here to emphasize the sheer amount of sweat and toil expected of this teeming support staff for even the most mundane task — It takes at least four servants to administer the Queen’s medicine and considerably more to cart the Emperor to and fro. Yet, Zhang seems to suggest, these people are as much part of the story as the resentful royals. They are the props of the extravagant ritual, rigid hierarchy, and striking beauty that characterize the Tang’s rule, and they are ennobled by knowing and playing their appropriate role in this imperial order. Whether or not you agree with this sentiment (and Zhang himself seems to cast doubt on it by the final shot), it does make for several breathtaking scenes of elaborate ceremony throughout the film.
And, yes, some of these are battles. To be honest, both Hero and House probably exhibited better fight choreography. If you come to Curse expecting a martial arts extravaganza akin to those films, you may well leave disappointed. I found the final Helms’ Deepish “silver versus gold” sequence to be too bloodthirsty (beheading prisoners and such), too unrealistic (here, more than anyone else in the film, physics don’t apply) and too obviously CGI for my taste. That being said, there are a few notable melees interspersed throughout the picture, most of them involving the black-clad, scythe-wielding “Flying Monkey”ish ninjas of the Imperial Army, who tend to swoop down from above and bury their scythes in the nearest possible revolutionary with extraordinary aplomb. (Sigh. Only one movie after Iwo Jima, and war and violence are already being made to look artful again.)