Friday, August 17, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower

Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia; Drama, China, 2006; D: Zhang Yimou, S: Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat, Chou Jay, Liu Ye, Ni Dahong, Li Man

China, Tang Dynasty, 10th Century. On the eve of the Chong Yang Festival, the Emperor returns to his palace. His wife, the Empress, has contempt towards him and has a secret relationship with her stepson, prince Wan, while the Emperor's second son, prince Jai, is supposed to inherit him. Wan is meanwhile in love with Chan, the daughter of the Imperial Doctor. At the same time, the Empress has to drink a mysterious medicine by orders from the Emperor, but she discovers it's actually poison and that he plans to poison her to death in 10 days. After assassins tried to eliminate the Doctor's family, his wife, Shi, confesses the truth: she was Emperors fiance and Jai and Chan are actually brother and sister. They all get killed, and Wan commits suicide when his rebellion against the Emperor fails.

"Curse of the Golden Flower" represents another example of director's Zhang Yimou's step towards dazzling costumes, fancy set design, rich cinematography and other great technical aspects of a sterile and thin entertainment, but in favor of a real drama and emotions. With a budget of 45 million $, "Golden Flower" was the most expensive Chinese film to date, and it was nominated for an Oscar for costumes, but it seems Yimou knew and had more control of his early, modest films filled with enthusiasm and real characters instead of a super-spectacle. It's a very solid film with very good actors and interesting story, yet it's obvious the producers forced the director to play it safe, especially noticeable in the fascinating incest subplot that was suppressed and thrown away in the background instead of getting explored, as well as the somewhat dumb situation where the Empress has to continue to drink her medicine for days, as ordered from the Emperor, even though she knows it is poison, yet she remains quiet and obedient - wouldn't it be more logical if she exposed his real evil character in front of others or simply ran away from the palace?

It's interesting that the story plays out as a straight drama, and not as an action/fight movie as some say it is - the fight sequences start very late in the film, mostly in the end, from the mass of Ninja assassins descending with the help of wires from a mountain down towards the doctor's home in the meadow, up to the finale where rebels trample upon the field of golden flowers around the palace in order to fight against the Emperor's army and start a revolution. There's even a neat aftermath, when the servants quickly wash up the blood and clean the area from the corpses to quickly replace the place with new golden flowers and clean rugs for the festival. Yet, the film is simply too inarticulate, incoherent, indistinct and not that intriguing to satisfy the audience, while some of the scenes really seem over-the-top (the Emperor slaps his son so hard that his own hair gets slammed free from his crown) or unnecessary. If anything, the film has to be given credit for it's uncompromising, dark, pessimistic ending: it really seems the message of the story is that power overcomes love and that people must me obedient to the government, no matter how bad it is, because it's unstoppable.


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