Odd, the things you find out when you more fully research a movie for review purposes; I was surprised to find out I had been a Zhang Yimou fan for longer and more fully than I had originally thought. From his first splash stateside with Raise the Red Lantern to his episode of PBS' Great Performances, "The First Emperor", which I accidentally tuned into and sat, entranced, for an hour – Zhang has quietly, but no less forcefully, insinuated himself into my inner circle of favored directors. So one could say I was quite looking forward to Curse of the Golden Flower.
Curse is less action-packed than Zhang's two previous period films, Hero or House of Flying Daggers – most of the action is saved for the film's final act - but the plotting is just as devious as either. During China's Tang dynasty, Emperor Ping returns to the Imperial Palace to celebrate the annual chrysanthemum festival, joining his Empress and three sons. Family dynamics start sliding all over the place like soap-slicked sheets of glass, not aided by the fact that the Emperor has been slowly poisoning his queen, a plot of which she is all too aware. Alliances shift, plots are plotted. If you took The Lion in Winter, stripped out all the comedy, combined it with King Lear and added an epic battle scene at the end, you would have some approximation of Curse of the Golden Flower.
Strengthening the Lion in Winter comparison is Zhang's cast, which is uniformly fantastic, headed by Chow Yun-Fat as the Emperor and the ever-wonderful Gong Li as the Empress. The Art Direction, or at the very least, the color on display should also get a nod as a supporting character. On the big screen, this was a dazzling, almost dizzying experience.
There should also be a warning to action fans: Zhang Yimou is a marvelous storyteller, but he does not take the easy way out of conflict; he has the Chinese admiration for the hero that undertakes the Impossible Task, but he also has no illusion that simple righteousness can overcome superior numbers, and the number of characters that are no longer among the living at the movie's end only serves to strengthen my other comparison, that of the Shakespearean tragedy.
Digital clarity serves the awesome color palette very well, indeed. The menu is simple and straightforward, with scenes from the movie playing about the text – I've said my piece on these before, and still find them a waste.
There is a very well-done English language dub, for those who prefer such things.
Secrets Within is a serviceable faeturette on the making of the movie. On-set footage is sadly lacking, but it is not often Western viewers get to see Gong Li hold forth on her craft. There is video footage of the Los Angeles premiere. Previews Zhang's other available movies from Sony Classics, House of Flying Daggers and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, as well as for Offside, Black Book, The Italian, Kung Fu Hustle, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Volver, American Hardcore and The Quiet round out the package.
Dr. Freex, 6/7/2007