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Since Red Sorghum in 1988, everyone's had a stake in building up or tearing down Zhang Yimou. On his latest martial arts spectacle, APA has nothin' but love.
When asked in a Curse of the Golden Flower press conference how she prepared to play a cruel, violent Tang Dynasty empress, actress Gong Li cited the coaching of director Zhang Yimou. According to Gong, Zhang poised the actress for her scenes by taunting her like a bull in a bullfight to extract the requisite intensity. The bullfight metaphor is apt for the whole of the Curse of the Golden Flower viewing experience. Zhang's intensity as a director emerges in almost belligerent lashes through his aggressive use of color and over-the-top staging. Curse of the Golden Flower reverberates with such pronounced dramatic and visual force that the experience of viewing the film feels like engaging in a crazed, un-winnable battle with a worthy adversary.
Historically situated in the late Tang Dynasty, Curse of the Golden Flower is a costume epic set during a period of increasing government corruption and autocratic rule. Based on early twentieth century playwright Cao Yu's Lei Yu (Thunderstorm), the film avoids some of the narrative incoherencies of Zhang's more recent martial arts spectacles Hero and House of Flying Daggers by virtue of its superior source material. Thunderstorm, a canonical Chinese theatrical narrative, and a required text at Beijing's Central Academy of Drama, operates on a dramatic register similar to Shakespeare's King Lear giving Curse of the Golden Flower substantial narrative depth.
Unfolding within the palace of Gong Li's Empress and Chow Yun Fat's Emperor, Curse of the Golden Flower tells the story of a highly dysfunctional family tainted by multiple levels of incest, corruption and belligerence. Chow's Emperor, determined to rid himself of his irksomely intelligent spouse, establishes a slow course of ritual-based poisoning in order to regain full control over the imperial household. What follows is a series of ostentatious betrayals rapidly increasing in degrees of gore and impiety lasting until the film's crushing finale.
Clad in elaborate gowns and corsetry as restrictive as a wild animal's cage, Gong's intense, disturbed and often lascivious-feeling scenes convey the narrative's violence in every look, stride, and flick of the finger. The same dramatic intensity that made Gong anachronistic in her recent turn as a Cuban gangstress in this summer's Miami Vice makes her a power to be reckoned with in the Curse of the Golden Flower. Even the decadence with which the imperial physician's potions/poisons drip off of Gong's lips mimics the hideousness of the Empressˇ¦s transgressive relationship with her stepson, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye).
Not one to be stood up on the screen, Chow fully matches Gong's ferocity to make for one of the most contentious screen couplings in recent cinematic history. If for no other reason, watch Curse of the Golden Flower for the battle of wills between Chow and Gong. Their work together is stunning, and translates surprisingly well.
Tackling the role of Prince Jai, second in line to the throne and the Empress' first biological son, pop star Jay Chou fails to generate Gong or Chow's gravitas, or even the same level of feeling as Chou's own song for the film's score. In all fairness, few actors could hold their own on screen with both Chow and Gong, particularly in a vehicle with space to accommodate the full range of their acting talents. Chou's performance does, at times, distract from the forceful inertia Zhang builds throughout the film. However, the Taiwanese crooner's dashing fight scenes will not disappoint his legions of female fans in Asia.
Zhang manipulates the film's color palette like a matador wields his cape: with force and deliberateness. From an imperial palace constructed with specially-designed multi-color transparent material to repeated use of the yellow flower motif, the film's lush visuals take Zhang's earlier work to a new and more substantial level. If that sounds shocking and overwhelming, it is. Zhang's most recent filmmaking strategy seems to be to tame his audience into submission by taunting and stimulating them with color and then lancing them with the force of his narrative. While at times overpowering, Zhang's saturated filmmaking style is nothing if not memorable.
Time will tell how different global markets will perceive Zhang's newest film. Recent critics and bloggers on the Chinese news web site Sina.com have suggested that the aesthetic of Curse of the Golden Flower borders on the morbid (bingtai). Among the most intriguing Chinese critiques of the film has been the perception that Zhang's destruction of massive sets, and the massacre of astounding numbers of extras (800-1000 members of the People's Liberation Army, by Zhang's count) on film suggests an anti-populist vein in Zhang's work, where the death of the common man goes un-remarked upon, but the interior power struggles of nobility are cause for an entire film. Other critiques of the film suggest that the work valorizes the rigorous Confucian order because the bulk of the film's conflict stems from a transgression of wife against husband, and leads to a series of disruptions in a broad portfolio of Confucian relational structures -- father/son, master/servant, ruler/ruled. Regardless of interpretation, the film is an international masterpiece currently being hotly debated in its country of origin and a must-see for the holiday season.
Ultimately, Gong's bullfight metaphor for the production process comes out in the film's end product. Zhang contentiously goads and challenges the viewer to not be overwhelmed by his artistry. Dramatic crescendo followed by dramatic crescendo, replete with images enmeshed in a world of brilliantly unholy color and design, Zhang ultimately forces the viewer to yield to his command of the screen. For this reviewer, getting into the ring with Zhang's masterful work is a challenge both pleasurable and worthwhile.
More of APA's Curse of the Golden Flower coverage:
Official Curse of the Golden Flower website (U.S.): http://www.sonyclassics.com/curseofthegoldenflower
Official Curse of the Golden Flower website (China): http://ent.sina.com.cn/hjj
Official Curse of the Golden Flower website (Taiwan): http://www.bvi.com.tw/movies/goldenflower
Date Posted: 12/20/2006