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Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Imagine Romeo killed Tybalt with a round-house kick. Or Hamlet stabbed Polonius with Chinese sword. Zhang Yimou's latest martial arts epic, Curse of the Golden Flower is like Shakespeare transported to 10th Century China. Set during China's Tang Dynasty, Chow Yun-Fat plays Emperor Ping, the surly and gruff Emperor. He rules the land with an iron fist, and his family with no less rigor. At his side is the Empress Phoenix (Gong Li), who is ailing but still retains a dynamism. She spends her days embroidering chrysanthemum for a festival soon to take place. Prince Jai, the couple's second son returns home with his father for the festival. His older half-brother, and heir to the throne, Crown Prince Wan tires of his duties and wishes to leave the kingdom with his love, a servant girl named Chan. As events unfold, we find that there is no love lost between the Emperor and his consort. He plots her downfall and prepares the throne to be taken by Prince Jai. But the Empress is wary that something is amiss and plots her own course of action against her overbearing husband.

And so we have a tale of deception and betrayal set against a magnificent backdrop. Everything about the movie is built around a grand spectacle. The sets and costumes are simply stunning. You'll be hard pressed to find any movie as colourful or pretty as Curse of the Golden Flower. Yet the absence of Yimou's previous collaborator, Christopher Doyle is noticeable. The film is missing something that previous film Hero had.
Chow Yun-Fat plays Emperor Ping with an air of severe authority. He's not too nice a guy, but since it's Chow, you still seem to engage with the character. It's a case of the actor transcending the role. The powerhouse performance comes from Gong Li. Her Empress is clearly suffering, her illness taking it's toll on her both emotionally and physically. Yet she is determined to see her plans through, despite losing the (somewhat Oedipal) love of her step-son, Crown Prince Wan, and the loyalty of Prince Jai who remains eternally loyal to his father. Her fragile physical state is matched with a dogged determination that makes for a really compelling mix.

Since this is the third of Yimou's martial arts films, there is plenty of action what punctuates the drama. But this is a drama first, so the action is spread out fairly thin over the course of the two hour running time. But the film climaxes in a jaw dropping battle between two opposing armies who meet within the castle walls. Thousands of soldiers clad in gold and silver armour meet in the keep and go at each other for forty minutes. For this alone, the film is worth the price of admission.
However, the main weakness of the film is the story. The plot is fairly threadbare and plays out as a family drama inspired by Shakespeare. There are moments within the film where you are willing the plot to progress a little faster, but to no avail. While the film is another visual treat from Zhang Yimou, I found his previous film, Hero to be more of an interesting watch. I've yet to see House of Flying Daggers.
But, despite this complaint, Curse of the Golden Flower is worth checking out. Not the most taxing film of the year, story wise, but probably one of the most visually interesting you're likely to see.

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