Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)Rated R for violence.
Starring Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Liu Ye, Chen Jin, Ni Dahong, Li Man, Qin JunJie.
LVJeff's Rating: 10/10
Photo ©Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.
The Rot Behind the Beauty
Now that director Zhang Yimou has completed Curse of the Golden Flower, his third splendidly-colored martial arts period piece (after Hero and House of Flying Daggers), I can sympathize with his intentions all the more. His goal here isn't to make films about the plight of humanity -- frankly, the rest of his entire oeuvre takes care of that. Instead, he uses these bigger productions to indulge in his, shall we say, George Lucas/Steven Spielberg side. These movies are an excuse for him to draw from the enticing, exotic blur that is Chinese history and mythology, to use old legends as a playground, and to bring these original stories to life as extraordinary color-soaked operatic pageants.
The further Zhang travels down this road, the more distinct these movies become. They're lavish, but at the same time they still retain that interest in the human conflict between philosophy and emotion. They contain martial arts, but the action itself is never the point, only the support. They are painted on canvases that always include a perspective on the workings of the ancient Chinese government. They are shameless in their use of computerized special effects -- they want to be larger than life and will use every means possible to achieve that. They are like nothing else in Asian cinema.
There are several weaknesses poised to puncture such projects -- they tend to be bloated, or they overreach, or they're eager-to-please. And while I can see excessiveness in Zhang's approach, what I now admire most is how he doesn't compromise in bringing what he thinks is a good story to the screen. Curse of the Golden Flower is a case in point -- this is a movie filled with no characters to get behind. They have trapped themselves in vicious web that will ultimately lead them to a doom of their own doing, and yet Zhang is rather merciless in presenting them to us. His larger concern is to illustrate that contrast between philosophy (the ideal, the outside) and emotion (the real, the inside) again, and specifically here it comes off as a criticism of how ruling bodies refuse to reconcile the two.
Hence, this movie is not so much a dramatic study of people and their motivations; it is, instead, an eviscerating examination of a proud, nearsighted governing system. The Chinese possess a concern for "face" and a preoccupation with showing off their aesthetic splendor (beauty = power); often, the idea of ascending to a higher state of being has to do with transcending ordinary human concerns. It's an idea that sounds admirable on paper but is otherwise unsound, for human is exactly what we, and these flawed characters in Golden Flower, are. The subject of this critique -- ruling houses -- is general enough to get away with not specifically naming Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat's characters; they're simply referred to as "The Empress" and "The Emperor," respectively (both actors give superbly modulated against-type performances).
We drop in on the royal family as they are at the peak of their dysfunction, and the first half of the movie slowly reveals just how deep this dysfunction has gone. The Empress is having an affair with her stepson (Liu Ye); the Emperor has secretly begun to slowly poison the Empress (presumably because he knows), and the Empress, in figuring this out, puts a plan in motion to retaliate, which may necessitate the involvement of her first son (Jay Chou). Before it's all over, the mess will also include a wronged ex-lover, suggestions of actual incest, deadly sibling rivalry, and huge armies clashing.
And in the meantime, where are the people, the subjects of this 1000-years-ago kingdom? The royal family and their servants are kept hermetically sealed within what looks to be a gigantic jewel box. Gold ornaments are everywhere in a labyrinth of elaborately decorated walkways. These people are trapped in a gilded cage, with nothing but their petty affairs; it's no wonder that The Emperor appears to be a calm, mad tyrant, while the Empress slowly loses her mind. Inside, the temperature must be ice cold; human concerns such as love and freedom are meant to be exterminated in favor of organized ritual and routine.
Nowhere is the mercilessness more devastatingly demonstrated than in a sequence where one gigantic army has literally boxed in a second, slightly less gigantic army and completely annihilates them. The movie ends with the coldest of dismissals and a blood-curdling reaction. Throughout this insanity, Zhang continually plays up the visuals, and this is perhaps the first of his three period movies in which the visuals play an absolutely essential role in the context and themes. The bigger the appearances are here, the more they threaten to squash any humanity that can be found inside.
So cynical is Curse of the Golden Flower that it actually exposes what must be an intrinsic irony in Hero -- that taking that movie at face value may be a mistake. Hero ends with an idealistic submission to government and a Machiavellian philosophy; Golden Flower shows what Zhang must have really been thinking -- that such surrender is inhuman because a government overly adherent to a large idealistic vision will ultimately transform into a shallow one occupied with appearances and meaningless ceremony, without a hint of concern for its subjects, both public and private, in sight (as I noted in my review for Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Zhang seems to be admitting, in his cinema, certain reservations about his role as China's offical conveyor of artistic prestige). That Golden Flower's iciness, with its seemingly tedious soap operatics, might turn it into a disturbingly unpleasant viewing experience may be its strongest achievement, as it demonstrates unflinchingly that, when it comes to a proud, powerful government, what's beautiful on the outside is squirmingly ugly within.
©Jeffrey Chen, Nov. 10, 2006