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24 July, 2007

Review: 'Curse of the Golden Flower' (2006)

Sumptuous, expansive... and that's just the anachronistic décolletages*.

2002's operatic 'Hero' and 2004's 'House Of Flying Daggers' are amongst my favourite films, if only in terms of visual production and cinematography (towards the end of the latter, the plot is less than wonderful). Hence, when A. informed me that it was being shown at The Dukes, I was immediately interested to see Yimou Zhang's latest Chinese 'historical' epic, 'Curse of the Golden Flower'.
Maybe those earlier films had raised my expectations too far, but I found it disappointing. No; on reflection, I do think the film itself was flawed.

A major part of the earlier films' visual appeal was the use of simple blocks of colour: whole scenes in which everything was, for example, a deep red or a vivid blue. Hypersaturated colours were used again here, but in more complex and ultimately less satisfying combinations. One scene, in which a black-clad 'ninja' (in 10th Century China?) crept along a corridor was unintentionally comic, as plain black was the worst possible camouflage against the brilliantly-coloured, near-psychedelic pillars and walls. The coloration and extensive use of gold certainly conveyed opulence, even decadence, but also a lack of taste.

That may have been my initial source of disappointment, but the main problem was a two-dimensional sterility in the characterisation. All the characters seemed like shallow puppets, or models in the other sense, being little more than a means of displaying costumes and jewellery. Admittedly, the actors played characters themselves playing formal roles, but even in private and when that outer layer was shattered, the audience learned very little about any of them as people.
In particular, the Emperor and his third son were cyphers, the former too well hidden behind his ceremonial demeanor (which is understandable) and the latter less prominent than servants until almost the end of the film.
I'm certainly not saying the acting was poor – far from it: Yun-Fat Chow, Li Gong and Ye Liu were particularly good, but they portrayed generic, or at least underdeveloped, characters well.

The film was based on a well-known play, but I understand that was set in a different social context. Transposing it to the sterility of the Imperial court obviously increased the opportunity for visual opulence, but sacrificed the chance for the characters to behave as genuine humans rather than ceremonial performers. An obvious theme was that the Imperial family was glorious on the outside but rotten inside. Regrettably, that assessment could be extended to the whole film.

Conversely, I was impressed by the depiction of the sterile, stultifying rigidity of ritual court routine, which may have justified the outward actions of the characters (certainly the Emperor). The film was punctuated by announcements of the hours, a stylistic device more familiar in Peter Greenaway's highly structured 'art-over-narrative' films. In fact, early scenes of court servants' daily preparations were also reminiscent of Greenaway's work – even at the time, I wondered whether it was a deliberate allusion.
This wasn't solely a stylistic device, though; it added impact to a major plot point. Immediately after the climactic battle scene in the palace courtyard, another army, of servants, replaced the crushed flowers, rinsed the blood off the steps, and laid fresh carpets, all before the next hour announcement. Preserving the illusion of eternal calm was beyond question.

Yes, there was a battle scene, but despite the title, setting, genre convention and the foregoing two Yimou Zhang films, this wasn't really a kung-fu or 'adventure' film, being a somewhat Jacobean/Shakespearean tragedy focusing more on family intrigues than physical combat. That said, there were some fights, with the expected high standard of choreography and a literally spectacular scale. The aforementioned courtyard battle apparently took over twenty days to film, on the largest set ever built for a movie in China.

It didn't help that the film was out-of-focus again. I did complain, but from the back of the auditorium, and hence the projection room, it didn't look too bad. Nothing was done.
From my seat, four rows from the front, the entire right side of the screen was blurred (strange that it was only one side) and the subtitles had a ghost double-image. Close-ups were okay, but intricate patterns – something of a feature in this film – were smears of colour and in wide shots faces were unrecognisable. It wasn't disastrous, and I didn't leave, but it was rather like watching on VHS with dodgy tracking, when I don't think it unreasonable to expect something closer to DVD quality, count-the-pores-in-Yun-Fat-Chow's-nose, pin-sharp clarity.

So, what am I saying? (I often wonder...)
If you enjoyed 'Hero' and 'House Of Flying Daggers', 'Curse of the Golden Flower' is worth seeing, but I do think it's the weakest of the three (not that they're a trilogy) and could have been better. Very much a case of style over substance.

*: Cheap joke, but unexpectedly accurate.

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