(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: This is a Faberge egg of a film. It is exquisitely beautiful, but the story is not one of Zhang Yimou's best. It is an overwrought melodrama set on a background of impressive beauty. The story is theatrical and not especially deep so as not to distract from the visual. An emperor and empress struggle for power against each other in a story of sex, drugs, and murder, all set during the chrysanthemum festival. This is a beautiful film, but the characters are weak and disappointing from Zhang. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10

Many filmgoers first took notice of Zhang Yimou with his film JU DOU. That was a complex story, perhaps at times a little hard to follow. What I remember most is that it featured scenes in a dye factory filmed in beautiful color. Zhang really woke up the film with bright coloration. Apparently he recognized the value of lush, luxuriant color in films. In almost every film he has made since that time he has used richer and richer colors. Perhaps he knows how to use color in film more effectively than any other director. His films have gained an international reputation for their visual splendor. That is the good news. The bad news is that his stories of late seem to be growing simpler and less interesting at the same time the color sense develops. His plotting has become more that of action films. Probably recognizing that a good deal of his proceeds come from viewers who will be experiencing his stories with the aid of subtitles, he is giving his audience less to read and less to distract their eyes from the beautiful images he is creating for them.

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER is the story of the Emperor Ping (played by Chow Yun Fat). He has married Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) a woman from another province in a marriage of state to extend his power. The marriage outwardly seems to have gone well. Empress Phoenix has given Ping two sons in addition to a previous son he had. But the external appearance is a lie, and now the two are engaged in a mortal struggle for power with the sons becoming pawns. That sort of story made for a very good film with THE LION IN WINTER but that film has more dialogue. Here Zhang seems reticent to use much dialogue to flesh out the story. The first half of the film creates the basic situation, with an economy of dialog and really a minimum of plot. Instead, we have a lot of scenes of people regally marching down majestic halls in beautiful costumes of fantastic color. The costumes are breathtaking. The characters themselves, however, are rather two-dimensional and the drama is a soap opera. The long-suffering empress knows she is slowly being poisoned, but does not resist beyond wearing pained expressions. The style is melodramatic and overwrought, somehow reminding me of a Roger Corman Poe film. With the exception of a few external scenes the film takes place almost entirely on the grounds of the palace, giving the film a set-bound and claustrophobic feel. The colors often push the images from simply ornate into the realm of the surreal. Equally impressive are scenes of huge armies shoehorned into courtyards for battles that would more likely be taking place on plains.

The pace does pick up in the second half with the introduction of what appear to be Chinese ninja assassins. I was not aware there were Chinese ninjas just as I was not aware that Tang Dynasty fashions for women included very low-cut necklines revealing large bouncing globular breasts bare almost to the nipple. Zhang works into the plot what seem like un-Chinese themes of sex and drugs to show the melodramatic decay from within. Of course there is martial arts with obvious wirework, further distancing us from reality. What is seen in CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER seems less honestly reflective of China's Feudal Period and more of Zhang's overwhelming desire to please an international audience.

Nearly every frame of this film really is gorgeous. Zhang is drunk with color. But perhaps this is a film better watched with the subtitles turned off. Zhang's theme is that what is beautiful on the outside may we weak and rotting on the inside, and the lesson may well apply to this film. I rate it a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or /10.

Film Credits:

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper