Curse of the Golden Flower
It is not easy to make important, individual films in China these days without invoking the wrath of government bureaucrats, but it seems as though Zhang Yimou can now make any film he wants, without either political or artistic interference, and I don't know whether to attack or praise him for it. At least a part of me feels that he is settling for less than his talent might produce, which would be a great loss for all of us. What has happened is that he alternates these days between small-scale homilies about doing good ("Not One Less," 1999, and "Walking Alone for Thousands of Miles," 2005) and enormous historical fantasy epics that sprawl across the computer-generated and enhanced screen ("Hero," 2002, "House of Flying Daggers," 2004). Why would I even think of attacking the man who gave us the intimate masterpieces "Ju Dou" (1990) and "To Live" (1994)? Because I'm selfish; I want the old Zhang back, making the kinds of films that will haunt me to my grave.
"Curse of the Golden Flower" is set in the Emperor's household in the tenth century, and in many ways it is the best, the apotheosis of his epic films - that is, where the others seem empty, even simpleminded, this has a much more involving story with inherently complex relationships among its main characters, and a plot whose twists and turns are unpredictable. More even than that, Zhang's use of the Forbidden City, and his scrumptious sets and art direction - the reds and golds almost bleed off the screen in an overwhelming riot of colors - add enormously to the power of his film. (The story is set around the annual chrysanthemum festival, and the image of the enormous plaza filled with golden chrysanthemums is enough to make even the most Bergmanesque among us faint with pleasure.)
The story begins promisingly, and brutally: The Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) is slowly poisoning his wife (Gong Li); she knows what is happening but palace protocol forbids her to refuse the poisoned chalice. At the same time she is conspiring with one of her sons to lead a rebellion against the Emperor; hints of incest abound. Their mutual hatred is constrained by the rigidities of palace life, which Zhang lets us see in the most fascinating detail. Back and forth the plots overlap, with much scurrying through the halls as Zhang cuts from one to the other. At the same time the son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), is moving toward the palace with his army.
All of this is utterly compelling, and I was about to congratulate Mr. Zhang on his new restraint and his unhackneyed approach to a story that has almost Shakespearean overtones (the screenplay was written by Zhang, Wu Nan and Bian Zhihong from a play by Cao Yu) when wham! It's the big battle! And Zhang lets his film go wildly off the tracks with CG-enhanced armies of hundreds of thousands filling the great plaza, trampling the poor crysanthemums and killing and dying in numbers greater than those of World War II. And although he pulls back afterwards to an intimate view of the surviving family members, our lasting impression is that the battle, for Zhang, is like the interpolated songs and dances of Bollywood stories; there's no rational reason except that the audience would like to have it. "Curse of the Golden Flower" is three-quarters of a brilliant film, and maybe that's enough; am I wrong to wish for perfection?