Saturday, April 14, 2007


After RAISE THE RED LANTERN, HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, audiences expect certain things from a Zhang Yimou film. Namely, plots that are concerned with sexual oppression, rich production design, saturated colours, impressive camera-work and wire-fu action sequences. How does THE CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER stand up against this list?

First, not enough can be said about the rich colours, textures and detail of the production design. The sets and costumes all emphasise the decadent luxury and claustrophia of the 9th century Chinese court. Gong Li's Empress is weighed down by golden jewelry, elaborate head-dresses and richly embroidered robes. The thematic material also fits well with the rest of Zhang Yimou's oeuvre. The oppression of women is clear, from the restrictive bodices and outer garments to the Empress' inability to refuse taking her medicine. However, the oppression is spread to every member of society who serves the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat). In an absolute monarchy, we can see the comodification and objectification of the individual at every level of society. The impressive opening sequence of the film sees the female servants getting dressed as identikit automata, but even the royal Princes have to bow to their father when addressing him. The camera-work and sound-design emphasise the claustrophobia of court life. In scene after scene we see the Empress walking through maze-like hallucinogenic-coloured corridors.

Second, the action is of the highly stylised wire-fu variety than Zhang Yumou made famous. But there is less of it in this film than in Hero, for instance. Aside from a small sword sequence in the opening half hour, and a quick sequence with some flying assassins around half way through, martial arts fans have to wait for an enthralling battle sequence near the end of the film for a true martial arts fix. It was all too little for Doctor007 - a true wire-fu fanatic.

But I did not miss the lack of back-to-back action sequences in THE CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. I liked the emphasis on, and juxtaposition between, the melodramatic Spanish revenge-style plot and the stylised, subtle, classical Chinese acting. In the opulent Tang court, a mighty Emperor sits. He has three sons. The first was born of the Emperor's beloved first-wife, now deceased. He is a callow young man who is having an incestuous affair with his stepmother, the Empress consort, and an abortive affair with the Imperial Doctor's daughter. The second son and third sons were born of the Empress-Consort. The elder of the two has just returned from exile, and will be forced to make a bid for the throne to protect his mother. The third and youngest son is largely ignored. The irony is that while the second son is forced to stage a coup, his father actually intends to make him the Crown Prince. And when all the fighting is done, the movie slips quietly away with an ambiguous ending. This has attracted some criticism, but I rather liked it. It's as if to say, look at this plotting - all this murder and revenge - what was it worth? What did it change? Fantastic stuff.

THE CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER went on release in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the US in 2006. It opened in Thailand, the Philippines, Greece, France, Poland, Mexico, Turkey, the Netherlands, Colombia and Argentina earlier this year. It is currently on release in Belgium and the UK and opens in Australia, Germany and Spain at the end of April. It opens in Italy on May 25th, in Brazil on June 15th, in Finland on September 7th and in Japan on October 13th 2007. It is also available on Region 1 DVD.

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