Chinese director Zhang Yimou began his career with well regarded dramas like Raise the Red Lantern , then displayed a mastery of colorful, outsized martial arts epics like Hero and the essential film House of Flying Daggers . If you’re new to Yimou, Curse of the Golden Flower is not the place to start; he’s made something melodramatic, very dark, even bizarre. That said, even though by conventional standards much of the film is sappy and dull, I have a contrary streak, and I loved it.
A Tang Dynasty Empress, played by Gong Li — who recently, inexplicably, was seen playing a Japanese Geisha — is dying of a mysterious illness. Every hour, the Royal Physician’s daughter brings the Empress a bowl of steaming medicine. The Empress suspects something is afoot, and she’s right; the brew is slowly driving her to madness and death.
The poisoning is at the command of her husband, Emperor Ping, a treacherous dog played by Chow Yun Fat, in Toshiro Mifune mode. Resplendent in his golden armor and his steaming male-ness, the Emperor rules his family as he rules his country: with an iron fist. His is a strictly ordered world, with a wealth of choices for a successor: three sons, all loyal, whether out of love or fear.
A family dinner at the palace is serious business, a ritual to enforce filial piety. But this family, prized by the Emperor above all things, is twisted. The eldest son, Wan, has been sleeping with the Empress (technically incest, though she’s not the birth mother). This is just the first of the many who-slept-with-whom intrigues that worm their way like dry rot through the candy-colored halls of the palace.
Pretty as those psychedelic halls may be, we spend so much time stuck within them, along with the same eight characters, the film becomes claustrophobic. That makes sense thematically – we’re trapped, like the Empress and Wan, with whom we’re sympathetic — but it can make you restless. Like Akira Kurosawa’s film Ran, which may have been the model here, in the last two reels we finally break from the Shakespeare into heavily stylized violence. For example, a pack of ninja assassins descends from the mountains on grappling hooks, like spiders. A good idea; it’s too bad the special effect is so tacky, a far cry from the now classic bamboo battle in Flying Daggers . At least Yimou obeys the first law of ninjas, which states that the power of a ninja is inversely proportional to the number of ninjas in the room.
Mysteriously, the film is somehow not a failure. I hope it was intended as black comedy; you have to read it that way to enjoy it. Chow Yun Fat, certainly, seems in on the joke. As he strokes his beard, stoking his scurvy imagination, he out-evils Macbeth. When Birnam Wood finally does come to Dunsinane, I wouldn’t bet on the woods.
This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wfiu.org. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.