The Curse of the Golden Flower was Zhang Yimou’s third historic martial arts film after two global epics wuxia blockbusters- “Hero” and “House of the Flying Daggers”. The plot is adapted from Cao Yu’s 1934 play, Thunderstorm, but Zhang transplant the mess- up family of Cao’s original to an imperial court setting during the Tang dynasty (though still pretty mess- up). The movie talks about a dysfunctional imperial family, lavish on the outside yet so corrupted on the inside. Accused by the emperor (Chow Yun Fat) of suffering from anemia, the empress (Gong Li) is required to drink a medical tea, which turns out to be a poison that will slowly destroyed her sanity and eventually kill her. The empress retaliates by plotting a bloody coup during the upcoming Chrysanthemum Festival (重阳节), with the help of the second son of the emperor and her eldest son (Jay Chou). Zhang piles on the intrigue with the incest taboo between the empress and her stepson, crown price (Liu Ye).
Arguably the defining characteristic of Zhang’s filmography- Zhang ‘s use of color to complete his visual storytelling. In his previous work, “Raise the Red Lantern”, the use of red in every nuance throughout the movie. His most famous work, the martial arts epic “Hero” is painted in a lurid of colors, each magically worked into the different scenes of the film. “Curse of the Golden Flower” if full of shimmering shades of gold that ornate the luxury of the imperial palace, so dazzling it almost blinds the eye. The is contrasted by the black-clad assassins as they fly through the air in wires, eliminating the imperial physician’s family. Beneath the glistening surface of the imperial family, we witness the dark and cruel feuding between the royalties, evoking the Chinese proverb “金玉其外败絮其中”, which literally means “gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside”.
As the emperor, and a cardinal character of the film, Chow Yun Fat (globally renowned for his act in Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and Bulletproof monk, etc.) lives up to his reputation and delivers a performance of amazing intensity. Though the character of the empress has little room for development, mostly shown grimacing in pain, Gong Li manages to express the emotions of the character she embodied to the fullest. For all that, I sometimes get distracted by her breasts which is overflowing from her bodice. Their pairing was no less than expected, with amazing chemistry. On the other hand, as the protagonist, Jay Chou’s (famous Taiwanese singer/songwriter) awkward acting was less than desirable. Besides starring in the film, Jay Chou also sang the soundtrack, 菊花台. Nevertheless, the presence of these world- renowned celebrities has managed to gross over $78 million worldwide, which achieve the intended goal of this commercialise wuxia film.
The film’s overt critique of Confucius is explicitly shown. One of the earlier scenes in the show, we have a scene of the Emperor confronting his second son, Prince Jai: “There are myriad things in Heaven and Earth, but you can only have what I choose to give you. What I do not give to you, you cannot take by force.” (天地万物，朕赐给你才是你的， 朕不给你不能抢”) The emperor repeats the same message at the end of the show when the coup fails. The empress tired to convince Prince Jai to join her revolt: “Many things can be changed” (很多事情是可以改变的), and Prince Jai answered “Rebellion is futile, nothing can be change” (其实什么都改变不了). There is also a scene which shows the emperor holding on to the empress’s hand writing “忠孝礼义”, the four cardinal virtues of Confucianism: Loyalty, Filial Piet, Ritual, Righteousness. In my perspective, Zhang is trying to appeal to the west (his targeted audience) by being critical of his own country political regime. In fact, the emperor’s addiction to drugs, court poisoning, the underlying theme driving this film, all seems like attempts to exploit the cultural differences, thus fulfilling the western imagination about Chinese culture.
The denouement fully relishes the oppressive horror and darkness that is Zhang intended to expressed in the film. The final climatic battle scene on the palace ground in which the golden-clad Prince Jai’s army is ruthlessly wipe out by the silver clad army. The lens focus on Prince Jai as he leads a coup; with no close- ups of the warriors involved, no shots of their anguish. There is not even echo of their death-cries, the extermination of his army was carried out in silence, which is cold-blooded to the extreme. After the bloody annihilation, the parade of palace attendants rapidly removes all the dead bodies, rinsing away claret beneath a fresh carpet of golden chrysanthemum. In the wake of this massive cleanup, the battle is erased and treated as if nothing ever happened. These long shots, which involves thousands of people, coupled with Shigeru Umebayashi’s bombastic score fuels the unspeakable horror and intentional iciness that pervades the show. However, the emperor beating his own son to death were unnecessary in my opinion. It seems to me that Zhang were playing up the Asian cultural practices of caning, but in an inhumane and disturbing manner. In fact, these excessive killings were so brutal and disturbing, it gave the film a feeling of beyond reality.
The extreme gaudiness of the adultery and intense brutality may turn off more than a few audiences. However, in all fairness, “Curse of the Golden Flower” is indeed another glorious spectacle, each scene beautifully arranged to stimulate the eyes. This movie is bearable to watch, even just for the sets, costumes, cinematography or cast. But it is probably not worth a second screening due to lack in depth in this overdone melodrama, compromised by the rules of commercialization. In fact, this movie might be a sign of things to come, ten years later, Zhang has placed himself in the ground of commercial films.