Cold cruel passion and wicked court intrigue are portrayed with asensuous visual splendor in "Curse of the Golden Flower," the latestperiod film of the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou. It's anincredible film, among the strangest and most overwhelming that Zhanghas made. And it unfolds--during the Later Tang Dynasty (923-936 AD), atime of corruption, dictatorship and warfare -- with a dark, stylizedbrilliance and an almost insane excess that will bewilder a good part ofthe audience and exhilarate others.
Don't judge the film too quickly, though. It really is like almostnothing you've seen before.
Zhang has been startling us since his early films, from the sexuallyintense chamber dramas such as "Red Sorghum" and "Raise the RedLantern"--both of which starred this film's ravishing empress, Gong Li--right up to his jaw-dropping recent period action epics "Hero" and"House of Flying Daggers." But here, he and his extraordinary actiondirector, Tony Ching Siu-Tung, seem to be vaulting past previous limitsand rules.
As we watch, stunned, a bloody Jacobean tide of murder, adultery, incestand rebellion pours through the chambers of a glorious palace, into acourtyard covered with millions of golden cut chrysanthemums. Throughthe corridors prowl a cast of royal schemers and victims. That sinisterensemble includes an evil emperor (Chow Yun Fat), his desperate wife(Gong Li), his three wildly contrasting sons and heirs (Liu Ye, Jay Chouand Qin Junjie), the troubled imperial doctor (Ni Dahong) and thedoctor's bitter wife (Chen Jin) and naive daughter (Li Man), both ofwhom have secrets that could destroy an empire.
Outside, the passions of that court elite infect the huge legions ofwarriors under their control, and a storm of conflict rages betweenrival armies. Two immense companies of slaughter -- battalions of flashingswordsmen, deadly archers, leaping ninjas and whirling martialartists--hurl themselves at each other in Busby Berkeley clockworkpatterns that seem to have been choreographed by some mad genius ofdance and death.
Battlemaster Ching, one of the finest action directors in the world,surpasses himself here. We never see any individuals among thesewarriors. Instead, they swing like spiders from the dark cliffs of amountain pass ambush, or flood over the courtyard in successive waves ofturbulent black and gold, leaving heaps of corpses on that mantle ofcrushed golden petals. These are the nameless, almost faceless minionsof tyranny--and Zhang, who co-wrote the script, shows once again howevil can spread like disease among rulers whose power has no sensiblelimit.
The cast is a memorable ensemble. Among the emperor's brood, Jay Chou,who plays the good, heroic middle son, Prince Jai, is a hugeTaiwanese-Chinese pop star who effortlessly holds the screen. Liu andQin, bookending him as the older and younger brothers, are effectivelysofter and weaker, like John Cazale's Fredo in "The Godfather." ChenJin, as the doctor's wife, radiates a bone-chilling fury and melancholy.
With his Clark Gable-style impudent macho and her Greta Garbo-likegoddess beauty, Chow and Gong are two of the biggest Asian movie starsever. And their mutual charisma here shivers the screen, though not inthe way you'd expect. Gong does play another victim, her one-timespecialty for Zhang. Slowly being poisoned through much of the movie,she projects a vulnerability that makes her role more poignant.
But Chow plays the emperor as a genial bully, with a look that suggestsnot the brash gangster Chow of "The Killer" and "A Better Tomorrow" buta mean-eyed old character actor such as Albert Dekker in "The WildBunch."
Zhang, whose powers are at their height here, gives the interior scenesof "Curse" the dramatic beauty and precision of a Kenji Mizoguchi film("Yang Kwei Fei"), while his amazing action-director colleague Chingstages the fights with a flair and energy that at times suggestsKurosawa ("Ran") mixed with John Woo.
Those are lofty cinematic comparisons, but, in some ways, this film isnear that aesthetic level. It's a work by cinematic geniuses thatreveals beauty and terror in a long-ago time with a virtuoso intensity.You won't soon forget its mad, lovely sights and sounds.