Tuesday, 12 December 2006

Curse of the Golden Flower 满城尽带黄金甲 (2006)

COTGF is brought to you by Pantene shampoo. Experience smooth, silky, flowing hair today!

The recent wuxia revival from China’s directors have been a work in progress, with sometimes weak scripts, international casts mangling Mandarin every which way, and dodgy CGI that make armies look like models generated by an outdated Rome: Total War graphics engine. It’s a surprising outcome, since Shaw and Golden Harvest have been making wuxia flicks since the dawn of time, China’s Communist era blockbusters featuring the epic of Chairman Mao had casts of thousands of extras, and you’d expect the only thing to be updated for the wuxia genre to be slicker stunts and higher production values – hardly a challenge for the increased budgets of today’s Chinese wuxia and period movies. But there you had it: the cheesey CGI shower of arrows in Hero, the very silly plot of The Banquet, the overwrought melodrama in House of Flying Daggers, the CGI armies and burning horses of Battle of Wits.

Thankfully, Zhang Yimou’s third wuxia flick proves the truth of the saying "third time lucky". As far as it goes, the production values is top notch. The director takes on the short-lived but opulent and gilded Later Tang empire that ruled Northern China during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, the interregnum between the Tang and Song Dynasties. There’s a good amount of palace ritual, costumes, armies decked with golden armour, and the extravagance of royalty that Zhang invites us to observe within the palace. It’s an ambitious undertaking that demands everything to be perfectly choreographed, with no extras out of place within the screen, and every detail of the props captured just so. To be properly awed by what Zhang has achieved, it might help to see this not as a wuxia flick, but a Chinese version of a 1930s Hollywood costume epic, where you half expect to see Cleopatra bathing in a ivory bathtub of milk, honey and flowers while attended by a thousand servants decked in golden corsets. And yes, Zhang gets all the details right from the start, so you can be wowed by the film from beginning to end.

Curse of the Golden Flower depicts an assortment of poisonings, coups, murders and incest taking place within the royal family. Chow plays a emperor who, despite discovering Empress Gong Li’s affair with the Crown Prince (a son from his previous marriage), decides on a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy combined with a Cold War with the missus, because the royal family is a model for the entire nation, and a rules-bound guy like him doesn’t want to rock the stability of a country he just conquered a few years ago. Gong Li is the trophy wife of the cold, passive-aggressive emperor who’s never loved her, but forces her anyway to take hourly medication for her chronic illness. Until she discovers he’s started to add a new ingredient that will drive her slowly insane or reduce her to a drooling idiot – right in full view of all their servants. And between them are their three sons: the sorrowful Crown Prince, a youngest child innocent to all the machinations around him, and a prince (Jay Chou) recently returned from exile for an earlier coup attempt. Who will have their way in the end? Will the Empress get her justice before she goes the way of the cuckoo? Will the cold and ruthless Emperor get his revenge in the end? Which of the princes will inherit in the War of the Chrysanthemums? In the epic tragedy of the Curse of the Golden Flower , the victims are the entire royal family, done in by the royal family themselves.

I’m told that the movie is based on the play Thunderstorm by Cao Yu, about the disintegration of a middle class family run by a cold and unfeeling patriarch. The play is very much like Zhang Yimou’s first movie, and you can regard Curse of the Golden Flower as a wuxia or period costume epic equivalent of Raise the Red Lantern, with its middle class family and its internecine rivalries and intrigues blown up into the scale of an imperial family.

Once you grasp this fact, you can understand the greatest strength of this movie, and its greatest weakness. Curse is all technical perfection with its gorgeous sets, costumes, and visual composition. Yet it dangerously inverts all the subtext and social commentary of Thunderstorm to the foreground. While the original play made the insinuation that the middle class, the nouveau richex still held old feudal attitudes, with Patriarch Zhou behaving as though he were the emperor of his little household and inventing traditions and customs by his own fiat, Zhang’s movie turns the middle-class pater familias who behaves like a despot into a literal emperor. It could be just about the most unsubtle, in your face move that strips away all the subtext and social commentary from the original text. All surface, no depth, some might say. I’d rather put it this way: when you’re dreaming about flying, you’re actually dreaming about sex in a way – but what does it mean when you actually dream about sex? The danger of inverting subtext to foreground is to strip art of its art.

As a martial arts film, and in terms of its production quality, Curse of the Golden Flower is a more superior film than The Banquet. In terms of scripting, the film is an improvement over House of the Flying Daggers, but still pales in comparison to Hero, ironically the director’s first wuxia effort.

First published at incinemas on 14 December 2006

No comments: