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Movie Review: Curse of the Golden Flower

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Zhang Yimou returns to the American cinema with his follow-up to 2004's epic House of Flying Daggers. Following the trend that was begun with Hero, his productions are getting larger and much more epic in scope, and always filmed with vivid color and lavish set design.

Each of the elements of style have gone through exponential increases over the course of the three films, although I feel that the strength of the story side of things has gotten increasingly weaker. The visuals are reaching critical mass and are overshadowing the plot. The plot has moved from the quiet and sublime of Hero to soap operatic Shakespearean tragedy in Curse of the Golden Flower.

I went in to Flower with relatively high hopes. I really enjoyed both of his prior epics, and was hoping that this would live up to those prior outings. In some ways Yimou has topped those other films, but in others, it just does not click. The end result is a movie that is visually amazing yet takes too long to hit its stride in the narrative.

The film is set in the dying days of the Tang Dynasty, a violent period in Chinese history, and the setting for many historical epics. The Emperor, played by Chow Yun Fat, returns home with his second son, just in time for the Chrysanthemum festival.

His relationship with the Empress, the lovely Gong Li, has a workmanlike feel to it. She is prone to spasms brought on by the "medicine" being ordered by the Emperor, while he is more intent on protecting his position of power. Meanwhile, the three sons have their own designs on the throne.

I found myself caring less about the story and more about the style with which it is pulled off. The story played out much like a soap opera. There are people sneaking around and and plotting their revenge, there are personal secrets that are just waiting to be exposed. Characters appear, sometimes out of the blue, just to have some big revelation that will have a lasting impact on the players involved. It just did not draw me in, so rather than dwell on the political and personal intricacies, I decided to focus on the spectacular visuals.

Curse of the Golden Flower is a triumph of set design and art direction. The lavish design of the Imperial Palace is a wonder, and all of the intricate costumes and hairstyles are a feast for the eyes. On top of this, there are a couple of beautifully staged action sequences.

Yes, there are some action scenes throughout, but do not be misled into believing this is a martial arts or wuxia film, as it is not in the least. What action there is, however, is exhilarating. First is the sword fight between Prince Jai and his Emperor father, the kicker being the Emperor was seated throughout. It was a wild sword fight that got me excited for later, while ultimately being disappointed.

Another memorable scene occurs when the Emperor sets loose his kept clan of ninjas. They lay siege on the town containing the Imperial doctor and his family, and the secrets they possess. Their attack is swift, brutal, and completely without mercy. Finally, there is the faceoff between the Emperor's forces and the forces attempting to usurp his throne.

Chow Yun Fat is the image of power throughout. I am more used to seeing him toting a couple of guns, but here his intimidating gaze and superior forward thinking is downright scary. Then there is Gong Li; she is a vision, and has been for a long time, only now beginning to appear on American screens.

Bottom line. Visually exciting, yet narratively dull film that sucked me in with the splendor. It was an interesting film, but it did not really offer much in terms of forward thinking. I feel as if I have seen this story before. Still, I found myself enjoying the grandeur of it all.

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