The Curse of the Golden Flower
Chinese action melodramas that deal with that country’s rich history evoke an old English nursery rhyme; when they’re good, (House of Flying Daggers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) they’re very, very good; but when they’re bad, they’re horrid. Such is the case with this elaborate costume epic set in the 10th century, when the Later Tang dynasty made a brief but corrupt return to power. Writer/director Yimou Zhang, who dazzled audiences with House of Flying Daggers two years ago, employs Hong Kong action icon Chow Yun-Fat, (The Corruptor, Anna and the King) as despotic emperor Ping and Gong-Li, (Miami Vice, Memoirs of a Geisha) as his consort, Empress Phoenix plus thousands of energetic extras to tell this tale of illicit romance, palace intrigue and violent family dysfunction. But despite the richly detailed costumes of designer Chung Man Yee and the dazzling color palate of cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao, Curse doesn’t deliver on the high expectations set by the director’s previous film. This may be China’s official entry in the Best Foreign Film Oscar competition for 2006, but the producers shouldn’t expect a win.
While Ping has been away from the Imperial Palace leading his troops with Prince Jai, son of the Empress, she’s been having an illicit affair with Crown Prince Xiang , Jai’s older brother by a previous marriage. In retaliation, Ping has ordered his Imperial Doctor to slowly poison the Empress, a task being carried out by Chan, the physician’s daughter. But Chan and her mother, long banished from the royal household, carry a secret that comes to light during an elaborate festival celebrated each year on the ninth day of the ninth month. As the celebrations begin, a deviously planned coup reveals the extent to which the royal family’s capacity for intrigue, lust and corruption will contribute to the dynasty’s downfall. Greek tragedy meets Freudian sexual analysis, with a bit of fratricide thrown in for good measure; Curse has too much of everything for its own good.
That said, the movie is ravishingly beautiful…and the surprising amount of décolleté provided the Empress and her dozens of young female attendants certainly makes for interesting viewing as they jiggle their way through The Imperial Palace’s exquisitely detailed passageways. The climatic battle scene looks like something Busby Berkley might have inserted into one of his famous 1930’s musicals if he’d been on steroids; whole regiments of armored soldiers pour through the palace grounds in maneuvers so synchronized they look like water cascading over the rocks in a mountain stream. It’s pretty to look at…and pretty nonsensical too.
That’s the basic problem with Curse; it’s so focused on trying to be visually dazzling it fails to engage the audience properly with the dark motivations of its royal characters. Chow Yun-Fat delivers regal glowers with perfection and Ms. Gong Li’s tremulous expressions often disguise her real intentions, but without more character development, there’s little for the audience to connect with. Peel away some of the visual extravagance and provide the imperial family with sufficiently nuanced dialogue to under -gird the many facets of their predilections and this might have been a first-rate spectacle; as it is, The Curse of the Golden Flower, (chrysanthemum’s, by the way, embroidered ad nausea by the Empress and crushed underfoot by the attacking soldiers) turns out to be little more than inconsequential eye-candy.
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