Wednesday, 4 April 2007

The Curse of the Golden Flower - Review by Robert Duffin

Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriter: Zhang Yimou
Runtime: 114 minutes
Certificate: 15
Release date: 13 April

The Closing Gala of the Glasgow Film Festival 2007 was packed to capacity, which sadly meant that 400 people witnessed the continuing decline of Zhang Yimou. The veteran Chinese filmmaker’s fifteenth feature, The Curse of the Golden Flower, was a prime choice to close this year’s festival with a guaranteed crowd pleasing concoction of lush visuals and bone breaking action, yet somewhere in this mixture Yimou has forgotten to add engaging characters or an in
teresting narrative.

The period drama is set circa 900AD and concerns the Shakespearian power plays between the Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat), his wife Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) and their three sons (Jay Chou, Ye Liu, and Qin Junjie), one of whom is sleeping with Phoenix. As the spiralling plot unfolds we discover that Ping is slowly poisoning his wife, which Phoenix is aware of, but she isn’t the innocent victim as she is also plotting to overthrow him. Meanwhile the three Princes have to navigate their Machiavellian webs of deception and it’s easy to empathise with their frustration.

Anyone who has followed Yimou’s career since his debut in 1987 might be surprised to find him amidst this Hamlet aping blockbuster. In post-Cultural Revolution China, Yimou graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 and along with such acclaimed directors as Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) and Tian Zhuangzhuang (Unforgettable Life) would form what would become known as the Fifth Generation. This group of filmmakers continued the trend of filmmaker’s preoccupation with China as a nation but they eschewed the politicised angst of national survival and the class heroics of social realist cinema prevalent under Communist Party leader Mao Zedong.

Yimou was the most prolific and controversial of the Fifth Generation filmmakers. He subverted traditions in his debut Red Sorghum (1987) by interjecting into the film unprecedented depictions of sexuality and assertive female characters. Star Gong Li, whose character is little more than a rich super bitch in Curse of the Golden Flower, portrayed Jui’er, a young woman who rejects an arranged marriage and takes control of a winery and turns its fortunes around.

His next two features, Judou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) along with Red Sorghum form a loose trilogy focussed on the redefining of the debate on Chinese patriarchy, liberation and modernity. Thus the Chinese government banned them outright and Yimou was forced to make the Communist Party approved narrative of The Story of Qui-Ju (1992). Yimou’s recent pandering to Western tastes has seen a decline in his radical filmmaking. Ever since Ang Lee scored box office and critical success with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) Yimou seems to have chosen props over people and spectacle over narrative in his films Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). While they have retained his uniquely evocative use of colour and photography they have missed the all-important ingredient of soul.

The costumes and set designs in Curse of the Golden Flower are staggeringly luscious but the mish-mash of colour and sheen veers on a visual binge that leaves your eyes begging for a break; for once it’s just all too much. Compared to his focused use of crimson in Red Sorghum to represent unbridled sexuality as sheets are drenched in wine during a controversial sex scene, the melange of gold, silver, purple and oranges here are only their to remind us that this film has a whopping big budget.

The story here is also less Tang Dynasty, more Joan Collins’ Dynasty. The never-ending web of deceit grows tiresome and there are simply not enough well staged battle scenes to punctuate the turgid screenplay. The film lacks an emotional centre and there’s no character to root for, even the usually riotously charismatic Chow Yun-Fat is remote and churlish behind his ridiculous grey speckled beard. By the finale the characters’ scheming seems more like an elaborate pantomime than a feasible drama and when the majority of the cast are reduced to a bloody pulp under the heels of a thousand rubbery CGI soldiers you’ll be hard pressed to care.

What is odd is that Yimou’s earlier films were epic in size yet never seemed to collapse under their own dramatic weight. He managed to convey personal dramas that were highly critical of government politics and sympathetic toward the plight of ordinary people living under brutal conditions. The emotionally charged To Live (1994), which follows couple Fugui and Jiazhen as they try to survive through forty years of turbulent Chinese history, sees Yimou posit family as microcosm of the state, a trouble family reflecting a troubled ideology which works to great dramatic effect in a child birth scene. Unable to save their daughter or grandchild during a labour hemorrage, as doctors have been banished for being "reactionary academic authorities", Jiazhen can only hold the hand of her daughter as she slowly dies. Contrast this with the empty melodrama of Curse of the Golden Flower and perhaps it’s pertinent to wonder if this is the same filmmaker at work.

Comparing Golden Flower to Yimou’s earlier works was perhaps always going to be an unfavourable relation. This new film does still have merit, such as the magnificent Gong Li who returns to work with Yimou after a professional and personal seperation in 1995. Her almost stoic theatricality as Empress Phoenix is the most enjoyable performance and she relishes such a spiteful role. Of the few action set pieces the black hooded army descending from the sky on grapple hooks is unique fun and the yellow chrysanthemum filled courtyard being stormed by red armored armies is one of the films lasting images. Yet with the Yimou of old you would never have to settle for eye candy.

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