"Curse of the Golden Flower" is great news for admirers of director Zhang Yimou and actress Gong Li. Between 1990 and 1996 they made a series of richly varied films, including "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern, "The Story of Qiu Ju," "To Live" and "Shanghai Triad," which were crucial in establishing a major position for Chinese films in international cinema. Together they reached the pinnacle of their professions, but after "Shanghai Triad" they came to a parting of the ways, professionally and personally. Both continued to make notable films, yet neither reached the dazzling level of their collaborations until rejoining forces with "Curse of the Golden Flower," in which Zhang celebrates the breathtaking beauty of Gong while fully tapping her resources of talent.
A period spectacle, steeped in awesome splendor and lethal palace intrigue, it climaxes in a stupendous battle scene and epic tragedy. Zhang's special gift is in letting each of his stories, with its specific time and place, set the tone and style of his films, and under his direction Gong is equally pliable, playing everything from peasants to a concubine to, in this instance, an empress. What unifies Zhang's work is a steadfast clarity of vision and a critical view of social ills and injustices.
"Curse of the Golden Flower" is a fictionalized account of the decadent, corrupt court life of the later Tang Dynasty, in the 10th century, a time when royals lived amid settings of ornate extravagance rivaling that of Versailles, the palaces of the Hajar shahs of Persia or the fantasy residences of Ludwig II of Bavaria. The fabulously gaudy Imperial Palace here is more movie palace than anything else. It's a dizzying riot of red and gold, its grandest chamber dominated by columns, perhaps of quartz, lighted from within and featuring every color in the rainbow. Yee Chung Man's costumes are every bit as rich and intricate as Huo Tingxiao's settings.
As the Chong Yang Festival approaches, yellow chrysanthemums -- the golden flowers -- fill the immense fortified courtyard fronting the vast staircase leading up to the Imperial Palace. Unexpectedly, the emperor (Chow Yun Fat) and his second son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou) return from fighting Mongol invaders along the country's northern border, ostensibly to celebrate the upcoming holiday with family, which includes the emperor's eldest son, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), the son of the emperor's first wife, and the emperor's youngest son, the teenage Prince Yu (Qin Junjie). However, relations between the emperor and the empress (Gong) are clearly strained, and the empress' health is failing. The emperor's intentions have a definitely sinister cast, and as it turns out, the House of Atreus seems a bunch of pikers compared to what this royal family and its retainers have up their embroidered sleeves.
The burly emperor was but a lowly captain at the time of his first marriage, but he succeeded in marrying the king of Liang's daughter. At that moment she became subject to her husband's dictatorial rule, and the only course open to her now is to secure the throne for her beloved Prince Jai at whatever price. The irony is that Prince Wan has no desire to rule, and in fact the emperor favors Prince Jai as his successor -- but on his terms.
There is no imitative quality to "Curse of the Golden Flower," but for cineastes it will recall the grandeur of the Babylonian sequence of D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" and of Fritz Lang's "Die Nibelungen," Shakespearean tragedy in general and in particular "Ran," Akira Kurosawa's version of "King Lear." "Curse" also has some of the heady floridness of Cecil B. DeMille's second version of "The Ten Commandments." Its ill-fated royals strive mightily to comport themselves with the dignity and formality of their counterparts in Greek tragedy, no matter what.
Audiences should not expect a "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" martial-arts extravaganza; "Curse of the Golden Flower" is above all a classic tragic spectacle, replete with stylized acting yet enlivened with bravura displays of fighting. All the different worlds and eras Zhang has evoked in his films reverberate with timeless meaning, and it's impossible to watch "Curse of the Golden Flower" without thinking of the decline and fall of China's decadent last emperor in the early 20th century and what that has meant for China and the rest of the world.
"Curse of the Golden Flower." MPAA rating: R for violence. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. At selected theaters.