Zhang Yimou’s latest Chinese epic “Curse of the Golden Flower” is on an even greater scale than “House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero,” pitting imperial egos against internal family politics.
As the impassive Emperor Ping (Chow Yun Fat) and his family prepare for the annual Chrysanthemum festival, conspiracies run rampant and treachery is more prevalent than brocaded silks.
The film opens with a clanging procession proclaiming the start of a new day. These gong-ringing, proverb-shouting messengers weave in and out of the plot action, marking the passage of time with strident steadfastness. The Empress (the stunning Gong Li) greets every hour with a ritual — a medicinal tea prescribed by her husband for an unnamed “condition.” As she later discovers, the tea contains a poisonous mushroom: a punishment for her affair with the Emperor’s eldest son, (her stepson) Crown Prince Xiang (Ye Liu).
The complexity of the story, written by Yu Cao and Zhang Yimou, derives from the constant shifting loyalties, the overlapping master plans of the characters and last-minute familial revelations. As each member of the royal family — the Emperor, the Empress, the Crown Prince and the Empress’ two younger sons — plans for the upcoming festival, they are plotting to wrest control of the empire for themselves or their allies. The presence of the Imperial Physician, Jiang (Ni Dahong), and his winsome daughter Jiang Chan (Li Man) further complicates the family’s affairs.
All of this political scheming takes place in a vibrant atmosphere, a riotous rainbow that contributes to the emotional instability of the characters. Production designer Huo Tingxiao created a Forbidden Palace drenched in vivid neon color, rainbow-patterned and heavy with golden embroidery.
Yee Chung Man’s costume design reflects the ornate rituals and the boundless authority of rank in the intricate hairstyles and perilously tight corsets that bind the Empress even tighter than the Emperor’s will. The men’s clothing is just as detailed, glittering in every layer from the tightest-wrapped undergarment to the billowing outer robes.
As in Yimou’s earlier films, hand-to-hand fighting is a gravity-free ballet until the last battle-heavy half-hour. The sword violence is artful but still realistic and bloody. Between fight scenes, cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding attends to the more delicate aspects of the film, playing with light and shadow among the color and brightness.
Gong Li is passionate and haughty, working even the most constricting costume like a power suit. Yun Fat is a poker-faced and controlling Emperor, alarmingly charming and deadly at the same time. These two strong personalities clash unflinchingly, neither being intimidated or cowed, even though the conflict’s resolution is inevitable.
The three sons each develop a distinct screen presence. The eldest, Xiang, is desperate and fearful, caught between an illicit affair with his stepmother and an equally forbidden relationship with a servant. Prince Jie (Chou Jay), as the Empress’ favorite son, must choose to fight for one of his parents — a decision that’s foreshadowed in an early sparring match with the Emperor. The seething frustration of Prince Cheng (Junjie Qin), the youngest, is palpable, building to a fever pitch to overrule his deceptively submissive attitude.
All in all, “The Curse of the Golden Flower” is dramatically powerful. The twists may not come unseen, but the execution is still surprising. Even for someone who is not a fan of the genre, this is a captivatingly nuanced film of visceral action scenes. Visually, it’s stunning, making the colors of the real world seem drab and uninteresting by comparison. The dynamic image of a powerful family gathered on a high dais reoccurs throughout the film — first impeccably strong and immaculately attired, later blood-soaked and shattered. In a struggle of wills this colossal, even a fight to the death feels like an inconclusive victory.
“Curse of the Golden Flower” was written by Yu Cao and Yimou Zhang, and directed by Yimou Zhang.
“Curse of the Golden Flower” received three out of four stars.