Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

One thing we can say about Chinese director Yimou Zhang is the he probably paints the prettiest pictures with light and film better than any filmmaker ever has, and possibly any filmmaker ever will.  With the remarkable ‘Hero’, Zhang delivered jaw dropping visuals wrapped around the incredible story of the formation of a nation.  With ‘House of a Thousand Daggers’ we are treated to even more beautiful cinematography, though a somewhat less remarkable film.  And here with ‘The Curse of the Golden Flower’, Zhang gives us his most beautiful film yet, and dare I say, his least entertaining.

Closer to melodrama like Zhang’s ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ than epic like ‘Hero’, ‘Golden Flower’ is the tale of Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) who is gradually losing control of her motor functions, mainly because her husband, Emperor Ping (Chow Yun Fat), is slowly having her poisoned.  Why would Emperor Ping do something like this?  Could it be because Empress Phoenix is having an affair with his son, her stepson, the incredibly weak and wimpy crown Prince Xiang (Xi Liu)?  Of course this begs the question as to why the empress would engage in such risky behavior.  Either she’s terminally horny since her husband doesn’t share her bed anymore, or perhaps she wishes to discredit the Crown Prince and allow her son, the brave, loyal and honorable Prince Jie (Jay Chou) to be the next Emperor. 

The Crown Prince however has cut off relations with the Empress, possibly because it’s like really bad to have sex with your dad’s wife, or because he’s fallen in love with the lovely Jiang Chang (Li Man).  Jiang Chang is the Empress’ main servant, the daughter of the royal doctor who is adding the Emperors poison to her meds, and the

daughter of Mrs. Jiang, who for some reason despises the Emperor to her core.  She also totally forbids the Crown Prince and her daughter to have any kind of relationship.  There is a third prince, young Prince Cheng (Junjie Qin) who just sits off in the background and grins.  And plots.

In ‘Curse of the Golden Flower’ the costumes are lavish, the sets are spectacular, the few fight scenes that are sprinkled throughout the film are thrilling.  The characters, however, are completely annoying and the story is tedious.  Gong Li’s Empress quivers and shakes and collapses and emotes, Xi Liu’s Crown Prince quivers and shakes and collapses and emotes while his girlfriend does the same.  And they continue with this soap opera throughout the entire film, eventually causing you to wish the Emperor would just have them all executed.  Not that the legendary Chow Yun Fat’s Emperor Ping is any great shakes, as he casually sits back and strokes his majestic beard throughout most of the proceedings.  I mean it’s a nice beard and all, with a touch of gray sprinkled in for effect, but damn…

After watching all of this suffering and quivering, and collapsing and beard stroking, ‘Golden Flower’ then descends into one huge CGI assisted bloody battle as the queen attempts a coup to force the Emperor to abdicate his throne.  Again, Zhang’s scope of the battle is epic, the colors surrounded by hundreds of thousands of bright yellow chrysanthemums, and thousands more gold armored soldiers is breathtaking, but the actual battle itself is tedious, never ending and ultimately boring.  Who would think that watching hundreds upon hundreds of ninja, soldiers, archers, and warriors getting eviscerated could ever be dull?  Alas, it is terribly so, as we are watching thousands of faceless, emotionless characters, to whom we have no connection to, fighting for a cause that we have no sympathy for.  The end result just leaves one as a cold detached spectator and doesn’t immerse one into the narrative in the least. 

It would appear that Zhang allowed his filmmaking technical prowess, which is vast and arguably unequaled, to suppress his story telling abilities which may well be called into question.  He could very well be the George Lucas of Mainland China.  I will admit that watching hundreds of Chinese women, including the lovely Gong Li, dressed in oxygen restricting dresses, pushing their breast together and lifting them to dizzy levels, thus creating a virtual sea of cleavage never got dull, but this a movie does not make I’m afraid.

‘Curse of the Golden Flower’ was ultimately a great disappointment considering the amazing talent that was in front of the camera as well as behind it.  Pretty on the outside, yet vacuous within, let’s hope that the great director Zhang Yimou fares better with his next project.

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