Starring: Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Written by Zhang Yimou, Wu Nan, Bian Zhihong
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Video: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: Chinese, English 5.1 (Dolby Digital)
Subtitles: English, French
Extras: Secrets Within: Making-of Featurette, Los Angeles Premiere
Length: 114 minutes
“Curse of the Golden Flower” is Zhang Yimou’s third martial arts epic, following “Hero” (2002) and “House of Flying Daggers” (2004), and, as it turns out, is quite different from those two films. Early in his career, he was known for rural-based dramas of a small scale, like “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991) and “The Road Home” (1999). Yimou is also known for his collaborations with actress Gong Li in his earlier films, and is now back working with her in this one. Gong Li plays the ambitious and tragic Empress to Chow Yun Fat’s ruthless and driven Emperor in this story based on an early 20th Century stage play set in the Tang Dynasty, a period in China which lasted from 618 to 907 AD and is considered to be one of the most prosperous times in Chinese history.
Zhang Yimou manages to successfully blend together the two types films he is known for, the smaller, intense character-driven dramas and the over-the-top, wire-fu, martial arts extravaganzas, into a film that never loses sight of the characters while delivering superb action in a few limited key sequences. It should be noted that if you go in expecting non-stop kung-fu action like Jet Li and Jackie Chan are known for, you’ll probably be disappointed in this film. There’s really only about two action/battle sequences in the “Curse of the Golden Flower,” but they are more epic in scope featuring armies of soldiers fighting each other within the Forbidden City than they are one-on-one, highly choreographed, virtuosic duels. The heart of this film lies in the people who make up the story, not in the action.
According to Zhang Yimou, there’s an old Chinese proverb that sums up this film: “Gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside.” Given that the Tang Dynasty was the epitome of opulence and wealth in China, the sets in the film are filled with rich gold, bright jewel tones, exquisite fabrics, and expansive corridors. To call it eye candy is an injustice; this is an eye banquet [unless you prefer spare Japanese-style design tos over-the-top Chinese ornamentation..Ed.]. Played against this fabulous setting is a dark and sordid story of a struggle for power. The ruling Emperor is aging, but still powerful and ruthless with no intention of giving up his dominion. The Empress plots against the Emperor even as he is having her poisoned by his physician. Lethal secrets from the present and the past are exposed along the way, as the players in this complex and treacherous drama are played against each other—husband against wife, father against sons, and mother against sons. If this plot is Shakespearean in nature, think Hamlet and King Lear. This is a tragedy of the first order.
“Curse of the Golden Flower” is a brilliantly directed and flawlessly acted film filled with staggering beauty, intense drama, and tragic consequences. Highly recommended. [The super-widescreen images are spectacular in their brilliant colors and sharp resolution down to the tiniest detail, even in shadows. The surround sound makes very creative use of choruses of sharp little transient sounds all around you – such as sticks being struck togethers, lids being put on pots or swords striking one another – thus supporting the visuals of hundreds or thousands of extras in action on the screen. In fact the resolution of a good standard DVD such as this one often exceeds on my 56” screen what I see at the typical movie theater. A few nights ago I made a trip to one of our many repertory movie theaters here. The ad for the classic film touted that it was “the first showing in Portland of a brand new 35mm print.” Right, and that 35mm print was projected out of focus…Ed.]
– Hermon Joyner