Zhang Yimou has long been one of my very favorite directors, a expert at delivering both visual splendor and heart-rending tragedy. And even while recently adding action movies to his repertoire (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), he still showed a propensity for making great films. But Curse of the Golden Flower left me cold.
Set in a corrupt imperial court in ancient China, it is the tale of a seriously dysfunctional royal family: the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) is slowly having the Empress (Zhang's onetime muse Gong Li) poisoned, while the Empress is having an affair with the Emperor's oldest son, whose own late mother is apparently still alive... and I won't give any more away.
It's a Shakespearean plot if ever there was one, hinting of Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, so it's no surprise that the film is based on a stage play (Thunderstorm, by Cao Yu). All this courtly intrigue eventually blows up into a gigantic, Lord of the Rings-like battle, as the individual family members lead their own factions of the imperial army against each other. (I'm sure that wasn't in the stage play.) The cast of thousands is as visually impressive as the opulent, rainbow-hued palace itself, but the blood-drenched swordplay does not mix well with the intimate family drama that makes up the bulk of the film.
Still, there's a lot of interesting stuff going on here. The final battle – I don't think I'm giving anything away – may allude to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre; its violent depictions of a futile attempt at revolution against a crushing, oppressive government feel very familiar. And then there's that final shot, which suggests something literally rotten at the core of China's "harmony". Zhang's gotten in trouble with the Chinese government for subversiveness before, so I wouldn't put it past him.
The cast is of variable quality: as usual, Gong Li delivers an intense performance, but Chow Yun-Fat is underutilized, and the actors playing the two younger brothers are weak. Aside from that, while the production design is overdone but wonderful, the costumes are simply overdone (especially the women's outfits, which are so bosomy that some may forget to look up at the actresses' faces). Chief among my other complaints: Shigeru Umebayashi's pretentious score is a big liability, and the operatic drama doesn't have the subtle personal sting of Zhang's best work. Curse of the Golden Flower is an intriguing experiment at marrying stagebound intimacy to a sweeping war movie, but it doesn't succeed.