Fri, Dec 22, 2006 - Page 17 News List

Blood is thicker than water

Chinese director Zhang Yimou returns with a visually flamboyant but emotionally hollow operatic extravaganza


Internal family feuds are played out Shakespeare style in Chinese director's The Curse of the Yellow Flower, with tragic consequences for all involved.


Reportedly the biggest-budget Chinese film ever made, Zhang Yimou's (張藝謀) garishly familiar melodrama-cum-martial arts extravaganza Curse of the Golden Flower (滿城盡帶黃金甲) is the ultimate cinematic representation of flamboyance and excess. Led by Chow Yun-fat (周潤發) and Gong Li (鞏俐), the lavish period drama tells of a quasi-Shakespearean familial war in a weighty manner.

The story begins with an Emperor (played by Chow) of a fictional kingdom in 10th-century China during the Tang Dynasty marching home shortly before the Double Ninth festival (重陽節), which is, in part, a celebration of family. The Emperor and Empress' (played by Gong) marriage is overshadowed by homicidal intrigue as she discovers the medicine her husband orders her to take every two hours contains a poisonous fungus that will soon drive her insane.

Distraught with the end of her affair with stepson Crown Prince Xiang (Liu Ye), who is also romantically involved with the imperial doctor's daughter (we later find out the young lovers are in fact half blood siblings), the Empress quietly cooks up a coup with her loyal son Prince Jei (Jay Chou) as the imperial family members follow their paths of destruction in court intrigue, incest, murder and massacre.

Based on Chinese dramatist Cao Yu's (曹禺) 1934 play Thunderstorm (雷雨), Curse of the Golden Flower can be seen as a hyper-ostentatious version of the director's 1991 masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern (大紅燈籠高高掛) as both center on the repression of women in patriarchal society. Yet, while a married woman's stifled life is poetically and acutely captured in the former, the latter portrays the human drama with a mannered theatricality.

Film Notes:

Curse of the Golden Flower (滿城盡帶黃金甲)Directed by: Zhang Yimou (張藝謀)Starring: Chow Yun-fat (周潤發) as the Emperor; Gong Li (鞏俐) as the Empress; Jay Chou (周杰倫) as Prince Jei; Liu Ye (劉燁) as Crown Prince Xiang; Qin Junjie (秦俊杰) as Price ChengTaiwan Release: WednesdayLanguage: In Mandarin with English subtitles

The opening sequence heralds a promising epic with masterfully executed cross-cut shots between scores of young maids preparing themselves for the Emperor's arrival [representing women] and the pounding footfalls of the army and its entourage [representing men]. The magnificent on-screen presences of Chow and Gong cocooned in opulent gold quickly emerge from the labyrinth of courtyards and halls, mesmerizing the audience with forceful intensity.

But as the film progress, the fatal flaw of a tell-don't-show narrative gradually looms large as we see two of the greatest film stars in the Chinese-speaking world struggle with the confinement of line reading rather than unleashing their talents in subtle physical performances.

Oddly enough, the over-the-top performances do seem to have found a niche in Zhang's grand opera in which love and death are played out at fever pitch in an unparalleled visual pageantry. Visually spectacular, the film creates a novel imperial palace compared to other Chinese period dramas. Swirls of primary colors shine through the glass in pillars, windows and walls, while kaleidoscopic patterns of flowers saturate the immaculate interiors of the palace. The ornate sets and feverish visual design alone are enough to make this film a peculiar work of cinematic art with a kitsch sensibility.

The final epic battle between imperial factions seems to be born out of the desire to equal the high digital standards set by the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the dehumanized CGI battle sequences, thunderous armies pose in perfect symmetry on millions of bright yellow chrysanthemums covering the imperial courtyard. It is again a stunning visual presentation in abstract form but devoid of human elements.

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