Starring: Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat, Jay Chou, Ye Liu, Dahong Li, Man Lie, Jin Chen, Junjie Qin
Rated R for Violence
On the basis of its visual appeal, "Curse of the Golden Flower" is a flat-out masterpiece. It looks gorgeous. Every costume, every set, every image busts with color and detail. It's positively striking; a sumptuous feast for the eyes. If only the same thing could be said for the screenplay.
Trouble is brewing in ancient China. The Emperor (Yun-Fat) has returned to The Forbidden City to celebrate the Chrysanthemum Festival with his family. However, the relationships between the family members are anything but cordial. The Emperor has been treating the Empress (Li) for anemia, but that's just a smokescreen. He really does it to control her, and has recently begun insert poison into her "medicine." She is carrying on an affair with her stepson, Prince Wan (Liu), who in turn is in love with the doctor's daughter Chan (Lie), a relationship that is more dangerous than either of them realize. Prince Jai (Chou), the ever faithful son, is concerned about his mother's health and obsession with sewing chrysanthemums. And Prince Yu (Qin) is all but forgotten about. Events are soon set in motion that could save the empire...or destroy it.
Incest. Forbidden love. Betrayal. Sibling rivalry. Political rebellion. Is it Shakespeare or soap opera? I'm not quite sure. It has the elements of both. Perhaps the line is drawn at the execution stage, and that's where this film comes up short. The story is clunky and doesn't always make a lot of sense. I got the sense that director Zhang Yimou was more concerned with how everything looked than whether he was telling a compelling, or coherent, story.
At least he had the good sense to cast two of China's finest in the film. No movie can be all bad if you have Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li in it (although Wong Kar-Wai gave it a good try in "2046"). Both of them do their jobs as only they can, but this script is beneath them. With a $45 million budget, one hopes that they were at least well paid. Gong Li does a fine job of playing a schemer, and Chow Yun-Fat is having a grand time playing a bad to the bone villain (ironic coming from a man who claims to feel horrible if he ever says something mean to someone). Jay Chou emenates loyalty as the dutiful son. Everyone else is essentially forgettable.
But let's go back to the look of the film. If you take a look at some of the images that Yimou has cooked up for this movie, you'll be astonished. Colors are bright and bold, the designs are intricate and vividly detailed. Credit has to go to the camerawork by Xiaoding Zhao, the production design by Tingxiao Huo, and the costume design by Chung Man Yee. People in these jobs rarely get credit for their hard work, and in this case, they deserve special mention. This movie is almost worth seeing just to look at it.
Sadly, Yimou doesn't support their efforts very well. What a shame.