Cinema Signal:

China's Golden Age:
Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty

. "The Curse of the Golden Flower"
(aka, "Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia")

Using the flamboyant Chinese dynasty of 1,000 years ago known as The Tang, director Zhang Yimou unleashes 21st century movie making flamboyance like there's no limit to his budget. Clearly, the success of the brilliant "Hero" and the artistic "House of Flying Daggers" have enabled a degree of expenditure that has become a burden to his storytelling. I don't suppose anyone could convince him now that less is more?

The story focuses on the imperial family, living in their palace compound and letting their hermetic existence distort their functionality, trust and mutual support as a family. Life here is formality, ceremonial ritual and intrigue, as the Empress (gorgeous Gong Li) turns to her step-son, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye) for her physical needs. But don't blame her -- he's pretty much all that's available what with hubby, the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) exiled from her bed and affections.

To exacerbate the problem, Wan's heart beats not for her but for cute and lissome Chan (Li Man), the Imperial Doctor's daughter.

This poor guy (using the term loosely for The Emperor, of course), not unaware of his wife's philandering, has been slowly poisoning her, obliging her to drink his supposed health potion which he has recently been spiking with a root of the loyal doctor's (Ni Dahong) devising that will eventually turn her brain to butter.

Now, we know there's going to be hell to pay when she finds out about it but, sticking to her royal guns, she continues drinking it even after she does find out what's been making her so ill -- the better to obscure her plot for an overthrow. Just how that's going to go you'll have to see for yourself but let me say two things: it involves middle son Jai (Jay Chou); and the decisions she makes concerning it are less than logical.

Under the direction of Yimou's 2nd unit "Action Director" Ching Siu-Tong, the action sequences are choreographed out of flying (and rapelling) concepts developed from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," his own "House of Flying Tigers" (remember the ninjas in the forest of bamboo?) with a bit of "Lord of the Rings" in terms of troop number and battlefield impossibilities. These sequences become more over the top than what's going on in the palace and seem stylistically detached, as though pirated from a drawing board. Perhaps it's all the posing and perfect symmetry, but such is the nature of excess and artificiality.

Visually, from the costumery to the architecture, it's all nothing less than stunning! Glorious! But one does wonder why, with a color theme of gold to render the sense of opulence, you'd put your sub-titles in gold. Some parts of the dialogue are, therefore, a real challenge to read.

As far as kingdoms go, there's no attempt to give a sense of who this royal family is ruling. Common people are as scarce as a rat at an exterminator convention. All you see outside the palace walls are ninjas and soldiers, revealing the stage setting limitations of Yu Cao's play from which Yimou's screenplay is adapted (with not a few echoes of Shakespeare).

Yimou's long time star Gong Li ("Miami Vice") does her best in her exquisite raiments and heightened dramatic stituation, and that is considerable. Not quite enough to pull this indulgence up to modern standards of storytelling in movies, but no stain on her range of talent either.

It should also be noted that Chow Yun Fat is quite excellent as the evil Emperor. Whoever decided on pressed, mostly exposed boobs for all the ladies in waiting's costumes also contributed something titillating to mix with the dastardly venom going through The Emperor's veins and the betrayals going on in the bedrooms. If only there were an antidote for the sensory overload.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


The soundtrack album

Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Well written
I've seen the movie and agree with the review
Site rating: 8

I think the review was far too kind - some of the sets looked as if a spray painter had run beserk through the pillars. Li Gong & Chow Yun Fat do their best but there's nothing that can be done to rescue this dud. Battle scenes look like a bad video game (which is just what they are) and the 'battles' require such a suspension of belief that we don't even try - sitting back completely bored.

                                                           ~~ Richard L. 
Well written
I've seen the movie and agree with the review
Site rating: 8

                                                           ~~ Charles C. 

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