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Murderous imperial melodrama with Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat

  • Mar 21, 2012
The Curse of the Golden Flower (Man Cheng Jin Dai Huang Jin Jia) is gorgeous melodrama; a visual feast of scarlet, magenta and gold, of lush set pieces with thousands of characters (computer generated but still impressive), of armies of men wearing yellow, scarlet or iron-colored armor...but still melodrama.
In tenth century China the Emperor Ping (Chow Yun Fat), ruthless and malevolent, is slowly poisoning the Empress Phoenix (Gong Li), ruthless and determined, with an extract from a fungus which will drive her insane before she dies. They have three sons. There is the Crown Prince Xiang, weak, who has been having an intimate affair with his mother for a couple of years. There is the second son, Prince Jie, who is capable and torn between fealty to his father and responsibility to his mother. And there is the youngest son, Prince Chang, scarcely more than a teen-ager, always happy and ready to please, usually ignored by both parents, and a young man who hides his resentments. The Empress knows she is being poisoned and puts into play a plot which will culminate during the Festival of the Chrysanthemum. A violent plot it is, with bloody consequences for everyone.
But does this dysfunctional family with all the plotting and maneuvering really mean anything? Not much, in my view, except as a reason to create wonderful visual images without end, plus a chance to see two outstanding actors, Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat, show why they're so good. There are plenty of confrontations, secrets about first marriages and first wives, sword thrusts and choreographed duels and battles to keep most people happy. I had a grand time, but I was hungry two hours later.
Most likely if this film by Zhang Yimou is remembered in twenty years, it will be because of its production values. The palace settings, despite the dark doings, are vibrant with color; there are bright, multi-hued columns, rugs and walls that virtually scream to be noticed, heavy and ornate silk costumes and sumptuous details, such as the golden hair-pins Gong Li wears and the small, translucent cup she drinks her poisoned medicine from. The attack by the Chinese equivalent of black-clad ninja warriors on an Imperial outpost in a canyon is great, choreographed action...dozens of these shadowy men rappelling down cliffs, using hooks and cables to slide down from great heights onto the roofs of the compound. In the dusk they look like clouds of black raptors swooping from the sky. At the imperial palace a great circular pavilion is built looming over the immense square. When the square is filled with yellow chrysanthemums it looks like a vast golden plain. The climatic battle between the two forces on this golden field of chrysanthemum is filled with brightly uniformed men in the thousands, with huge wooden walls rolled into place that sprout spears and slowly move forward while arrows darken the sky. Afterwards, cleaning the square of all the bodies and blood and armor, then replacing the crushed flowers with new chrysanthemums, is nearly as impressive as the battle itself. This is great, engrossing stuff. The one false note was the occasional gymnastic sword play between actors. When you see a middle-aged woman suddenly doing backflips, or an aging emperor sitting on an ornate bench able to ward off blindingly fast front, back and side sword strikes, well, for me, I found myself amused, not amazed.
When one considers the movies Zhang Yimou has given us -- among them Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad, The Road Home, The Story of Qiu Ju -- he gets a free pass from me on this one. It's great fun and not much more, but enjoy.
Murderous imperial melodrama with Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat Murderous imperial melodrama with Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat Murderous imperial melodrama with Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat Murderous imperial melodrama with Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat Murderous imperial melodrama with Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat

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March 21, 2012
Interesting plot and wonderful pictures abound!
More Curse of the Golden Flower reviews
review by . November 01, 2008
An Asian movie that's not packed   With fancy kung fu tricks   This one's a period drama   And is based on politics     A captain rises to the throne   He marries to gain power   He doesn't love this second wife   And finds her rather sour     For ten long years she has to drink   The medicine he orders   This, he says, will make her well   And cure all her disorders …
About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer ()
Ranked #2
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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