Fans of director Zhang Yimou’s ‘quieter’ works – films like The Road Home (Wo de fu qin mu qin) and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (Qian li zou dan qi) – may well be a little confused by his latest offering. Curse of the Golden Flower features a particularly slow-burning build up finished off with a bloody and violent third act far more reminiscent of his recent wuxia films. It is hard to know at whom this is aimed.
Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) has an incredibly tough life to live. Living in an astonishingly opulent (almost grotesque) royal palace, with only her persistent ‘anaemia’ to contend with, she could hardly have it better. She is married to the all-powerful Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat), who supervises her regular treatments with a concoction of his own manufacture, and is having sex with her step-son, the Crown Prince Wan. Her eldest birth-son and second-in-line to the throne, the doting Prince Jai, has just returned from several years away in the military, and she is also planning a coup d’État. This busy life is almost all she can keep up with, but she somehow manages to find time to obsessively needlepoint golden Chrysanthemums over and over again.
Gong Li is excellent as the rather conflicted Empress Phoenix. She displays just the right mixture of cunning and corruption, alongside the hurt and pain of a woman scorned. With her recent role in Miami Vice, she is finally showing her talent to a much broader audience. Chow Yun-Fat, for years underrated as ‘only’ an action man in films like Bulletproof Monk and The Replacement Killers, is surprisingly effective as a bad guy, pulling off ‘sinister genius’ to a tee. The supporting cast are all adequate in their roles, but none stand out or make the audience care enough for their outcomes.
There are flashes of Yimou’s more recent action films, with the gorge-climbing assassins drawing immediate and obvious comparisons with the bamboo-bound soldiers of House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu). Once again, the use of colour is striking, with several set pieces so brilliant and vibrant this film should come with a warning for those with sensitive retinas.
The problem isn’t in the performances or the cinematography, which, as can be expected from a Zhang Yimou film, are uniformly solid. The main fault with Curse of the Golden Flower lies in the ponderously long time taken to get to the final showdowns. As a study of tragedy (in the tradition of the Greeks), the royal princes aren’t quite accessible enough to really care for, and the prolonged time spent in their company seems only to postpone that which is of real interest. When the blood starts to run is when the film finally start to feel alive.
For fans hoping for something more than what those in Hollywood have to offer, (Shooter the most recent example of their inadequacy), Curse of the Golden Flower may satisfy some, but the lack of a clear sense of whether this is Shakespearean tragedy or action film leaves it disappointingly short of the mark.Rating: