Marketed as the third entry in Zhang Yimou’s trilogy of art house martial arts epics set in ancient China, Curse of the Golden Flower is really a disturbing look at a royal family that’s rotten to the core. Compared to the selfless idealism of Hero or the unrestrained passion of House of Flying Daggers, his latest film is a study of Freudian sexual entanglements and monstrous selfishness barely concealed behind a façade of power and glamour. Yimou manages to milk this tension for all its worth in scenes where the backstabbing members of this family exchange polite conversation with each other, every word dripping with a subtext they dare not speak aloud, but eventually it reveals a hole at the center of the story: in the absence of a single noble character to root for, do we really care who lives to see the end of this bloodbath?
Without any real empathy for the characters – at least, I hope nobody in the audience is identifying with them – Curse of the Golden Flower doesn’t work as a cathartic tragedy. But that probably wasn’t Yimou’s intention in the first place, and either way there’s plenty of spectacle on display to hold our attention. It might seem shallow to recommend a movie based on its visual splendor, but when it’s this gorgeous to look at (it was filmed in and around China’s Forbidden City), exceptions have to be made.
The camera lingers on characters as they glide down hallways made of brightly colored stained glass reflecting the distant light from the outside world. We see fields of endless yellow chrysanthemum flowers being grown in anticipation of a coming festival. At regular intervals throughout the day, servants parade around while striking chimes and uttering maxims such as “The day breaks. The court presides. Peace to all. It is the Hour of the Tiger.” The stiff formality of these platitudes is a nice counterpoint to a miserable household full of people who don’t care about anything besides their own fears and desires, and certainly not about the philosophy of the hour. Meanwhile dozens of handmaidens rush back and forth, doing household chores while wearing identical, tightly-fitted corsets (apparently a killer rack is the most important thing a girl can have on her resume in order to get a job in the Forbidden City).
The film seduces us with its beauty only to use it against us; no matter how opulent the settings, if your life was confined to the same 100 rooms, and your human contact and sexual choices were permanently limited to the same two dozen people, you would eventually go mad, too. That’s the fate of Empress Phoenix (Gong Li), who has fallen into a long-term affair with her stepson Prince Wan (Liu Ye) while her husband and Wan’s father Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat) is away waging war on his enemies. I suppose it’s the sake of convenience more than anything else that drives the Empress into Wan’s arms, since he has few redeeming qualities to recommend him; he’s a spineless toady, completely afraid to stand up to his father or any other authority figure, while he’s carrying on his own affair with the daughter of the royal physician.
When the Emperor returns home he quickly orders his doctors to force the Empress to drink a new medicine every day to cure her anemia; this “medicine” is in fact a rare poison that will cause the Empress to go permanently insane after a few weeks time. In a remarkable scene early in the film, the Emperor calls everyone to a family meeting around a massive table situated in the courtyard and gives a highly metaphorical speech about the need to have order in the household and obey the divine laws that define their lives. Everyone at the table, not only the Empress and Wan, but also the Empress’s own sons Prince Jai (Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou) and Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), understands the unspoken message the Emperor is really telling them: I’m in charge here and I’ll do whatever I want, and who here has the balls to stand up to me?
Recounting any more of the plot here would ruin the surprises and be counterproductive anyway since there isn’t enough space to detail every last twisted relationship or dark secret. Suffice it to say that every scandal is brought to light and the family begins taking sides in a looming civil war. The calculating cold-bloodedness of the characters through most of the film makes the sudden violence of the ending feel like an unexpected jolt of electricity, and even in an age where watching CG-rendered armies charging at each other over vast battlefields has become commonplace ever since The Lord of the Rings, the final battle is still thrillingly epic while making us feel the weight and punishment of its bloodshed.
It can be exhilarating, but without an emotional investment in the outcome all that’s left are the larger-than-life machinations of the actors. Chow Yun-Fat uses his screen presence to great effect as a tyrant who’s murderously obsessed with getting what he wants. Gong Li, mostly unknown in the west but the most famous actress in Asia, manages to balance her performance as the Empress on the knife’s edge between her encroaching madness and her rage over her helplessness in a patriarchal society. And the three actors playing the Princes each represent varying degrees of ambition and filial devotion: Jai holds on to a fierce, if misguided, dedication to his mother’s well-being, as Wan takes advantage of the pleasures of imperial life while avoiding its responsibilities, and Prince Yu remains silent as the others form alliances and scheme, but he’s able to project a scary glint in his eye suggesting unexpected depths. Even with all the gilded luxury surrounding them, the feverish tension between these characters is what holds your eye.
The DVD for Curse of the Golden Flower contains only two real special features: a making-of documentary called “Secrets Within” and a two-minute montage of on-location interviews from the film’s Los Angeles premiere. I’ve wasted plenty of space in the past railing against the tendency for these features to be nothing but the cast and crew endlessly praising each other (as opposed to asking questions about the movie’s aesthetics or thematic content), but thankfully the filmmakers mostly sidestep this concern. They’re nothing that I’ll want to watch again, but at least Yimou spends most of his time discussing the historical accuracy of the movie and how it reflects aspects of Chinese culture, even if his insights aren’t very deep (sample quote: “The key element of the sets is opulence.” No kidding!). There’s also some amusing stuff with Jay Chou, a relative newcomer to acting who talks about being intimidated by the other cast members, and Chow Yun-Fat adds some levity by joking that he’s really a lousy actor and he only took this role in order to hit on Gong Li.