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Curse of the Golden Flower

Far From Yimou’s Best

Curse of the Golden Flower (“Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia”), Zhang Yimou’s (House of Flying Daggers, Hero) latest film and the third in his wuxia (period martial arts) series, is, as expected, a dazzling, often dizzying piece of eye candy. That’s not too surprising, as anyone familiar with Yimou's oeuvre can attest, Yimou has an unparalled eye for epic spectacle.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Yimou’s storytelling abilities or the tilt of his films toward the authoritarian end of the political, cultural, and social spectrum. First evident in Hero, Yimou’s pro-authoritarianism position will be difficult for Western moviegoers to accept unquestioningly. That Curse of the Golden Flower is also overlong and self-indulgent makes it that much harder to appreciate or admire, regardless of its visual pleasures.

Set during the late Tang Dynasty (approximately 928 A.D), Curse of the Golden Flower opens with the impending arrival of the emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) to the Forbidden City to celebrate the annual Chrysanthemum Festival. Wan (Ye Liu), the emperor's eldest son and Crown Prince, awaits his father's arrival with trepidation and fear. The empress (Gong Li), weak with a long-term illness that requires hourly medication has, at best, a chilly relationship with the emperor. The emperor's ambitious second son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), has just returned from the frontier where he proved himself against Mongol invaders. With an heir and a spare, the emperor's third son, Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), is barely an afterthought.

Soon enough, we discover the reason for Wan's anxiety: an illicit affair with the empress, his stepmother. Wan has moved on though, openly romancing the empress' herbal specialist, Chan (Man Li), the imperial physician's (Ni Dahong) daughter. But Wan learns that an empress scorned is an empress likely to make his life incredibly uncomfortable. A despotic, scheming emperor, a bitterly unhappy empress, an heir who doubts his ability to lead, an ambitious second son pressing for recognition, and a long neglected third son all lead toward tragedy for the royal family.

With a cast of thousands (a mix of “live” and digital performers), a sizable production budget at Yimou’s disposal, and skilled artisans at every level (e.g., set design, costumes, cinematography), Curse of the Golden Flower is nothing if not a visually impressive period/martial arts film. Martial arts fans expecting fight scenes every ten or fifteen minutes, however, will be sorely disappointed. Besides an early show-of-strength between the Emperor and Prince Jai and a mid-film night-time attack on a mountainside inn, Curse of the Golden Flower takes a circuitous route before arriving at the epic battle scene we’ve been waiting for. Unfortunately, Yimou doesn’t know when to stop. What starts off as suitably breathtaking, ends up as overlong and repetitive.

Story wise, Curse of the Golden Flower borrows elements from Shakespeare's King Lear (here three sons instead of three daughters) and Mario Puzo/Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather I and II. Unfortunately, the emphasis on palace intrigue, plots and counter-plots ends ups feeling like a Chinese soap opera with martial arts thrown in for purely commercial reasons. Still, Yimou deserves credit for trying to expand the martial arts genre beyond the usual clichés. Unfortunately, the end result isn’t Shakespearean tragedy, but kitschy soap opera.

That Curse of the Golden Flower doesn't succeed is partly a result of Yimou failing to match his ambitions with the results onscreen, but it’s also due the dubious subtext that permeates the movie. Hero revealed a troubling tendency in Yimou's work toward social and political authoritarianism, something that pleased Chinese politicians and bureaucrats that frowned on Yimou's earlier, status quo-challenging films. With Curse of the Golden Flower, it's become clear that Yimou supports benevolent authoritarianism as social and political ideology, except in the case of Yimou’s latest film, the authoritarianism is everything but benevolent.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars