“Curse of the Golden Flower” is probably the most lavish costume drama in history, equaling or outdoing director Zhang Yimou’s other spectaculars, such as “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”
It’s a sea of gold, red, blue, silver, with Yee Chung Man’s improbably luxurious costumes. Armies clash, warriors fly, the imperial family self-destructs and the Shakespearean plotting, feuding and killing never stop.
Also, in a likely surprise to cultural historians, “Curse” establishes 10th-century China as the time and place for the perfection of the push-up bra. Although heaving bosoms are present throughout the movie, the opening scene is unequalled in its discreet Playboy fantasy of legions of young women getting ready for the arrival of the emperor. It’s spectacular and outlandishly funny at the same time, prompting simultaneous leering and laughing.
The flamboyant Later Tang Dynasty (923-936 A.D.) is the subject of Zhang’s film, the royal family giving “dysfunctional” a bad name. The emperor (Chow Yun Fat) is a majestic, but thoroughly evil man, who oversees the systematic poisoning of the empress (Gong Li, back with Zhang, the director who made her a star years ago before the two parted ways). The empress, who eventually engineers the meltdown of the entire court, carries on an affair with her stepson, the crown prince (Liu Ye) who, in turn, sleeps with the beauteous Chan (Li Man), both blissfully — but not for long — unaware that they are closely related.
Prince Jai (Jay Chou, in a great performance) is the middle son, aspiring to become the crown prince and then the emperor (not necessarily in that order); Prince Yu (Qin Junjie) is the youngest son, not well positioned for the succession, but keep your eyes on him — he may just have a surprise coming.
This is just a fraction of what’s going on in the Imperial Palace, but Zhang’s genius as a director is proven once again. He is telling this complex, even convoluted story in such straightforward manner that it can be followed easily. Zhang, who is in New York now, directing a Tan Dun world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera (having done Puccini’s “Turandot” in Beijing), is the most operatic of film directors, with an epic sweep, flamboyance, gripping drama. (Speaking of the Zhang-Tan Dun partnership, which gave “Hero” a magnificent soundtrack, it’s a shame that the composer for “Curse” is Shigeru Umebayashi, whose music is schmaltzy and unoriginal.)
Zhang quotes an old Chinese saying: “Gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside.” And “Curse” has it all, although the gold-and-jade surface is so ostentatiously brilliant that all that portentous stuff within lacks depth and believability. At some of the most dramatic moments, there is laughter in the audience: The fun is too much to bother with what’s supposed to be hot and heavy, the intended drama turns into melodrama. But, again, the fun is great and nonstop; bosoms may well heave merrily in the seats as well as they do, dramatically, on the screen.
Curse of the Golden Flower ???
Starring Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Liu Ye, Li Man, Jay Chou, Qin Junjie
Written by Zhang Yimou, Wu Na, Bian Zhihong
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Running time 1 hour, 54 minutes