2006 opened with the opulent but soulless The Promise by vaunted Chinese Fifth Generation director Chen Kaige, and now closes with the equally confounding Curse of the Golden Flower by Chen contemporary Zhang Yimou. No other Asian release has arrived with greater anticipation or talent this year, especially due to the potent combination of writer/director Zhang and his original muse, superstar actress Gong Li, reteaming for the first time in over a decade.
Zhang retooled the framework of stylized historical epics with the colorful, action-packed Hero, which benefited from a reasonably strong story in spite of its Rashomon-like structure. He followed up with the less cohesive but equally vibrant House of Flying Daggers, then retreated from those large-scale efforts to return to his roots with the small, simple, and satisfying Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, proving that he hadn’t abandoned his small-time beginnings after a taste of big-budget spectacle. Zhang clearly still knows how to spin a powerful tale, so it’s all the more distressing that the story is given such short shrift in his new film.
Gong Li plays the icy wife to the equally cold and calculating emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) as they raise their three sons in their luxurious, unbelievably ostentatious palace. There’s clearly no love lost between the two, although there’s plenty of illicit love between Gong and her stepson, the crown prince. The prince is also getting some action on the side from a palace worker, who happens to be the daughter of the chief palace doctor, who happens to be married to a woman with a mysterious past that disrupts the entire balance of power when revealed. Got all that? There’s more, and the twisted relationships of the royals and their subjects add plenty of head-scratching to the proceedings as viewers try to keep everything straight. It’s family drama on a grand scale, so fans hoping for a higher volume of action set-pieces like Hero are bound to be bitterly disappointed.
While the entire film is an absolutely eye-popping display of vibrant color, gorgeous costumes and scenery, it ultimately feels just as empty as the lives of its cloistered royals. Their mutual deceit and plotting for selfish gains grows tiresome rather than interweaving into a fulfilling denouement, resulting in little emotional payoff by the time all the revelations, traps and countermeasures have been played.
Aside from a couple of minor fights, Chow’s role requires little more than glowering at his dysfunctional family. Gong fares a bit better, but is largely confined to quaking uncontrollably to silently express her rage and sorrow rather than having the chance to expound upon her emotional state. It’s understandable that the royals are expected to maintain their composure, but also off-putting as we miss the chance to fully explore their motivations or reactions.
In spite of its writing deficiencies, the film is worth watching simply for the sheer beauty and scale of its spectacle. The stunning look of the film simply begs to be experienced on the largest screen possible. The palace grounds are frequently filled with thousands of subjects, culminating in a bloody battle as massive as anything in Lord of the Rings. The limited action sequences are overflowing with fighters, especially a bravura scene seemingly filled with dozens of ninja-like warriors simultaneously descending from the sky on ropes as they decimate an outlying province. The ornate palace and costumes are hyper-real constructs that bear little historical accuracy but immense visual satisfaction, veritable explosions of color and fine detail unlike anything ever seen before. And finally, the opportunity to see Zhang direct fellow legends Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat together onscreen is reason enough to give the film a pass, even if they never get the chance to fully show what they can offer. Enjoy the film for its epic production values, just be wary of its confusing and uninvolving plot.
Written By Caballero Oscuro