Thursday, January 25, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang, 2006)

In ancient Greek drama, the stories told by Sophocles and Euripides often centered on a royal family with some sort of internal corruption or imbalance. The events of the play then were a matter of restoring order and ensuring that the state was able to move forward. Zhang Yimou’s most recent film, Curse of the Golden Flower takes that pattern, adds glorious color and martial arts, then offers a conclusion that does indeed offer reconciliation, though perhaps not in the way we might expect.

Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li play the central roles as the Emperor and Empress respectively, though their union is anything but a pleasant one. For three years he has been away from the palace and in his absence, the Empress has been conducting an affair with the Emperor’s oldest son – a man who calls her Mother although he was born of a different wife. On the flip side, the Emperor has arranged to have his wife’s daily medicine spiked with an herb that will lead her steadily towards insanity. The other key players in the household are the royal doctor and his daughter, a servant, as well as the Empress’ two true sons. Instinctively we know that each of these people will have a role to play in how the story unravels and influence the balance of power. Most often, we are at a least a step ahead of the characters in figuring out who is connected to whom. And yet, the joy of Zhang’s film is in watching just how it all happens.

First and foremost, Zhang’s players enact their melodrama in costumes and a setting that are ornate nearly to the point of absurdity. In nearly every frame, we are bombarded with walls, floors, ornaments, robes and gowns that are so utterly decadent that it becomes something of a relief for us when we finally have a scene that takes place outside. It is as if the royals are being smothered in luxury, their outward show a futile attempt to mask their moral decay. Secondly, Zhang gives his drama an appropriate sense of size and magic with battles that are not physically possible, yet convey in a short amount of time the cosmic import of their outcome. In the film’s most thrilling sequence, warriors clad in black descend from high above into a deep valley to surprise a seemingly defenseless target. In this and other scenes, the faceless tend to die simultaneously in the same fashion. After all, they are merely pawns in the struggle amongst a handful of key players. When the leader of an army survives miraculously while all around him fall, it is because they are not intended to be individuals; rather, they are a visual extension of his own personality and power.

Finally, the acting, while not uniformly excellent, does contain compelling performances where it counts. It is no surprise that Gong Li leads the way, excelling as she does in expressing stubborn determination. Liu Ye, as the eldest son, also turns in a captivating turn, finding humor in dire situations, but never sacrificing the honesty of the moment. I also admired Chen Jin’s performance in the role of a woman with a mysterious background – though it does not remain terribly mysterious for long. Somewhere in between Hero and House of Flying Daggers in terms of political content, Curse of the Golden Flower is, for the most part, simply a broad tale of power and deceit told with uncommon flair. Still, there is enough ambiguity in the closing scenes to fuel a reading that would either support or attack the Chinese government. Because it does not end in typical crowd-pleasing fashion, the sense a viewer makes of this conclusion may prove critical to one’s ultimate satisfaction with the film. Even so, Zhang offers so much that it is hard to imagine a viewer who will not find at least something to admire.



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