Curse of the Golden Flower

by wjw on August 5, 2007

I’m so far behind in reading and viewing that my reviews are always ages late. I finished the Harry Potter book a week or so behind everyone else, and the discussions were already over. Living in the country means it’s a 75-mile trip to the theater, and that means we almost never go, so I rarely see anything that isn’t available through Netflix.
I finally saw Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower, which was released last year. Zhang, a member of the “Fifth Generation” of Chinese film makers, spent the Eighties making art films like The Story of Qiu Ju and Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad, which won awards at Western film festivals but which were never released in China due to subversive political content. These stories almost always featured Zhang’s then-lover Gong Li as the Beautiful Woman Who Suffers.
Recently Zhang’s been alternating his small personal films (like 2005’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles) with enormous historical epics such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and now Curse of the Golden Flower. Hero I liked a good deal, but was bored by Flying Daggers— I wished the characters would get over their soap opera and save the country, but of course they never did. And Flying Daggers’ characters seemed lost amid the spectacle— it’s as if a smaller, less ambitious film were trying to fight its way clear of the color and pageantry.
Curse of the Golden Flower is filled to the brim with color, pageantry, and epic scope— but that’s part of the point. Practically the entire film takes place inside the T’ang Dynasty’s Forbidden City, in an enormous palace dominated by ritual, luxury, and pomp. The settings and costumes are an endless eternal feast for the eyes. Yet as the saying has it, “beneath jade and gold there is rot and decay,” and so with the imperial family in this story.
Gong Li stars as the Beautiful Empress Who Suffers. (Surely by now they must be raising temples to her as the Goddess of Exquisite Suffering.) Trapped inside the splendor and ritual of the court, the Phoenix Empress is forced, every two hours, to knowingly drink the poisoned tea that the Emperor sends her. The Dragon Emperor, whose motives remain obscure, is splendidly played by Chow Yun-fat. Chow’s native language is Cantonese and this film is in Mandarin, so I wonder how Northern audiences reacted to an emperor with a southern drawl— supposedly they didn’t think much of his Mandarin in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The Empress has three adult stepsons, the children of a mysteriously absent first wife. She’s romantically involved with one of them, played quite well by Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou. They all have agendas. One prince commands an army of soldiers in golden armor. Someone else commands a force of black-clad irregulars who zoom eerily along an overhead web of ropes. There are sexual intrigues among the legion of blue-clad maids who serve the imperial family, and who wear surprisingly low-cut gowns (obviously a plot by eunuchs to drive the male members of the family insane). The Empress has grown obsessed with embroidering golden chrysanthemums. A carpet of golden chrysamthemums has been laid out in the imperial courtyard in advance of a festival. Messages are being carried back and forth by night.
Zhang works a lot with the same sort of color symbolism he used in Hero, in which the Ch’in emperor’s grey-clad legions gradually extinguished all color from the country. Here we have gold-colored warriors, black-clad agents, grey-colored imperial soldiers, blue-clad maidens, and the riot of color that is the palace itself.
Of course the story’s a horrible tragedy. This is Chinese historical drama, after all, and if there’s anything Chinese history tells us, it’s that nobody ever gets a happy ending. The Chinese aren’t afraid of tragedy: it’s something that affirms their own experience.
The movie’s themes resonate quite well with Hero, which involves the conflict of duty with honor (not to mention survival). In Golden Flower, the Confucian ideal of loyalty to the head of the family, and to the emperor as head of the national family, conflicts with notions of elementary justice. Should you be loyal to the emperor who is poisoning you, or strike back?
However you choose— this being China— it’s going to end badly.
Paul August 6, 2007 at 2:11 am

Funny enough, I recently saw and
reviewed this too.

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