Sumptuous. That is the only way to appropriately describe a film like Curse of the Golden Flower. It is rare for a film to be so colorful, visually mesmerizing and luscious, while still also proving to be incredibly evocative in its narrative, one that is Shakespearean in its undertaking. Few directors were able to do this with any consistency during their career, Akira Kurosawa being the prime example of this, however, while he has not had quite as prolific a career as Kurosawa, Yimou Zhang has been able to captivate and enthrall audiences with his visually engaging material since first coming onto the global cinematic scene with his troubling Raise the Red Lantern and consistently releasing films that challenge the notions of what constitutes traditional imagery in Chinese cinema. While my personal favorite by the director is likely to forever remain Hero, I cannot think of another film, aside from those that rely heavily on CGI-based special effects, that has looked so beautiful based entirely on its color palette. Indeed, as I struggle to make a comparison to another director, my mind immediately jumps to the work of Satyajit Ray, whose films, while in black and white, contain such a regal sense of beauty that one earnestly gets the feeling of being present for the events. In most cases this quest of a cinematic beauty would suffice and would prove enough for the film to gain a large world audience, however, like Kurosaway, Zhang realizes that narrative cinema also rests on having a well-executed story that is delivered with consistency. Casting the likes of Chow Yun-Fat and other notable Chinese actors, Curse of the Golden Flower takes on yet another level of Shakespearean evocation, in its performances, each actor immersing themselves fully in their roles to lend to the visual statement of the film. At times I found myself think that this could be half the film it is and still have proven to be a wild success. Sure, it might be a bit of a stretch to include it in my month of kung fu/martial arts films, but there are Dynasty Warrior-esque fight scenes, and for being a last minute addiction to the list when another planned film fell through, it has made me glad to catch up with another Zhang work, while already considering a way to marathon view the remainder of his films.
Curse of the Golden Flower is situated in during a particular festival in imperial era China involving a lavish homage to the golden chrysanthemum. The festival is only a backdrop to the dealings of The Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) who finds himself at odds with a particularly troublesome military campaign where he fights along side his son Prince Jai (Jay Chou). His returning to his palace results in a high degree of paranoia between his wife The Empress (Gong Li) and her stepson Prince Wan (Liu Ye) who have been engaging in an illicit affair for years. Wan, however, is not entirely committed to The Empress and has been having his own affair with the palace doctor's daughter Jiang (Li Man). Suffice it to say, the various relationships and tenuous family ties lead to deception and plots at rebellion, particularly the one planned by The Empress to take down The Emperor, by obtaining the aid of Prince Jai. Of course, The Empress's paranoia concerning her husband is not ungrounded as it is eventually discovered with the help of a spy that The Emperor, has been attempting to, for a considerable amount of time, poison The Empress by mixing a highly toxic black fungus into her drinks. While the fungus does not succeed in killing The Empress it does cause her to become mentally unstable, thus leading to her wild and confrontational admittance to her plots, even dismissing Wan and revealing their previous affair. After a few assassinations and even more acts of punishment, Prince Jai finds himself taking heed of The Empresses's suggestions and planning a revolt against The Emperor. Mounting an army full of golden armored warriors, the men of Prince Jai's army bombard the palace, which is being heavily defended by The Emperor's own grey armored men. Made aware of the attack earlier, The Emperor strategically defends his palace and only the stubborn Jai continues his assault, eventually being captured and brought before The Emperor. The Emperor offers to spare the life of Prince Jai on the condition that he be willing to give the poison to The Empress, an offer he refuses, instead choosing suicide, much to the despair of The Empress and surprise of The Emperor.
For a film that is essentially a gloriously shot and visually audacious narrative on family drama, it is quite interesting to consider the ways in which this film avoids the use of names to signify the personal. Indeed the two biggest authority figures in the film are referred to constantly as The Empress and The Emperor, at times, even by their own children. Authority in this context is entirely a result of lineage, yet, the lineage also comes with a high degree of signifiers, ones that are almost all nominal. The Empress is not really the mother to all the figures, yet she is to be treated as a maternal authority, which, of course, means that a large issue of Oedipal complexes arise, even if pulled from a non-biological context. Indeed the relationship between Prince Wan and The Empress is not incest per se, but given the attachment towards names and the authority they carry, it manages to suggest such, particularly when the betrayal emerges. Indeed, when The Empress discovers that Wan has found himself another lover, her reactions seem almost indicative of a maniacal mother figure out to protect their child from the dangers of the public, circa Carrie. One would assume that as lovers it would take on a different context, but, again, the naming and authority that comes with such actions result in an unusual result. Even the brother recognize their privilege to be contingent on relational elements to The Emperor and The Empress, thus explaining why Prince Jai is afforded such authority, because he stands to be the son of both the matriarch and the patriarch, as opposed to Wan who is only the son of the patriarch, albeit, the lover of the matriarch as well. Yet, for all the concern of asserting unquestioned power in a role of authority, Zhang's film does make it rather clear that those in power, particularly males, are afforded a means to change the rules and remove those from spaces of power as they see fit. Viewers first see this occur with his removal of Wan's mother from society altogether, leading to her insidious revolt and very violent punishments. However, this also occurs in the closing moments of the film, when in a state of frustration and rage, The Emperor is able to appropriate his name and power to cause those right below him to die. Interestingly, the film does show the power that an mass of people can exert against one figurehead, perhaps as a second level of irony to the faulty importance placed upon such points of authority.
Key Scene: The first shot of the palace grounds covered n chrysanthemums will take your breath away, I assure you of that.
I am going to buy a copy of the bluray just to have play as ambience, it is really a visually captivating work.