An opulent drama of Shakespearean proportions

Curse of the Golden Flower

on December 21, 2006 by Wade Major
Over the course of his two decades as a major international director, Zhang Yimou has proven himself uncannily adept at juggling a range of classical Chinese film genres, from intense period dramas like Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou to contemporary social comedies like The Story of Qiu Ju and Happy Times to dazzling period martial arts spectaculars like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. More recently, however, he's begun blending those sensibilities in even more enthralling new ways and with results both tantalizing and titillating.

After hearkening back to his minimalist roots earlier in the year with the deeply touching and austerely funny Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Zhang delivers the mother of all 180-degree turnarounds with Curse of the Golden Flower, an opulent spectacle of almost Shakespearean gravitas and eye-popping cinematic virtuosity.

Set during the 10th-century Tang Dynasty, the film at first unfolds like a chamber piece, narrowly concerned with the palatial intrigue surrounding the family of the cruel, calculating Emperor (Chow Yun Fat), namely his scheming Empress (Gong Li), their two sons, Prince Jai (Jay Chou) and Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), and the Emperor's eldest son by a previous wife, the Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye). As always, power and succession are the key concerns here, complicated by the usual array of illicit affairs, crosses and double-crosses, dark family secrets, elaborate schemes and counter-schemes. But, as the stakes increase with each new and life-altering revelation, Zhang further ups the ante by throwing open yet another set of palace doors, augmenting the film's scale and stirring the pot with even more unanticipated revelations. Everyone, it seems, has both a secret and a plan, and the way in which they intertwine and unfold is nothing short of genius.

Based on the play Thunderstorm by famed novelist/playwright Yu Cao, a case could be made that Curse of the Golden Flower isn't so much Shakespearean as it is Macbethean, trafficking in the very same themes and employing many of the same devices as that most savage and primal of the Bard's great tragedies. To be sure, Zhang is no stranger to the labyrinths of tragedy — such machinations were already at the heart of Shanghai Triad and Raise the Red Lantern — but his execution here belongs solidly in the Hero and House of Flying Daggers camp, style lavishly painted across every corner of the screen with passionate, reckless abandon. What begins small soon grows to fittingly imperial proportions, a gloriously volcanic eruption of silk, armor, blood and poison that seems certain, at the very least, to earn the film a handsome suite of Oscar nominations for its technical achievements. What production designer Huo Tingxiao, costume designer Yee Chung Man and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding have created is far more than just a dazzling feast for the senses — it is, in a very real way, an evocation of the characters' innermost dreams and fears, their blackened souls and most extravagant ambitions so forcefully realized that it almost seems to transcend reality.

It is no minor detail, either, that this represents Zhang's first teaming with Gong Li, his one-time partner in life and art, in over a decade. The two were inseparable between 1987 and 1995, during which they collaborated on Zhang's first seven films (as well as acting together in 1989's A Terracotta Warrior ), soaring to fame as the Chinese industry's most illustrious celebrity couple. It was in 1995 that both the collaboration and the relationship finally ended, creating no small amount of sorrow among their mutual fans. That sorrow can now be put away for good as the collaboration has been reinstated with all of its historic magic and magnificence firmly intact.

Distributor: Sony Classics
Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Liu Ye, Chen Jin, Ni Dahong, Li Man and Qin Junjie
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriters: Zhang Yimou, Wu Nan and Bian Zhihong
Producers: Bill Kong and Zhang Weiping
Genre: Period drama; Mandarin-language, subtitled
Rating: R for violence
Running time: 114 min.
Release date: December 22, 2006 ltd

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