Zhang Yimou's The Curse of the Golden Flower might preview what the opening ceremonies at Beijing's 2008 Olympics will look like. The director is orchestrating the festivities at China's summer games, and this deliriously splashy, trashy palace intrigue and action extravaganza is a pretty good dry run. Set in the royal court of the 10th century Tang dynasty, Golden Flower, is a bejeweled soap opera spectacle that challenges all notions of cinematic pageantry.
When Empress Phoenix (the ravishing Gong Li) discovers that her husband (Chow Yun Fat) is slowly poisoning her into madness, she puts into motion an elaborate plan to overthrow the emperor and secure the throne for her two sons, Prince Jai (Chinese pop star Jay Chou) and petulant teen Cheng (Qin Junjie). Things get complicated when Crown Prince Xiang (Ye Lui) catches wind of the plot. The son of the emperor's dead first wife, Xiang is a sensitive soul who has been sleeping with both his stepmom and members of the royal house staff. As the emperor returns for the annual Chrysanthemum Festival a celebration of the family's moral pillars: loyalty, filial piety, dignity and righteousness (get the irony?) a massive showdown looms.
Taking his cue from the Lord of the Rings films, Yimou piles on the spectacle, overwhelming the audience with his lurid visual style. Splashed in brilliant reds, greens and golds, the royal palace is a dreamlike wonderland of sparkling colors and lush textures. Half the film is spent behind the castle walls as the director's camera stalks its carpeted corridors, hungrily searching for the next period-piece ornament, heaving bodice or tragic flesh wound. When the film ventures outside, it's to capture massive armies, clad in silver and gold, clashing beneath an endless hail of spears and arrows.
Yimou slathers Golden Flower with so much hysterical pomp and circumstance that it overwhelms the audience's synapses and smothers almost every other element of the overheated storyline. Unlike the marvelously balanced Hero and House of Flying Daggers, the film's narrative is predictable and stiff, burdened with long, windy exchanges that explain and re-explain background and plot. After a thunderous tease of an opening, nearly an hour passes before we get to the first great action piece. Instead, Li and her co-stars engage in the kind of campy exposition you'd find in a Jackie Collins novel. It's Dynasty with swords and ninjas.
It's strange to watch Chow and Li, two of China's greatest film stars, constrained by static blocking, lifeless dialogue and exaggerated gestures. The script's literal simplicity offers little in the way of subtext, wasting their formidable talents. Chow is appropriately cruel and calculating, and Li squeezes out dignity and sympathy with every poisoned bead of sweat, but neither finds the spark for a great performance.
Yimou finally commits to his action impulses in the film's final hour, first by staging an astounding nighttime assault by scythe-wielding assassins who descend, spider-like, from canyon cliff tops then launching into a wave after wave of escalating battle scenes. The sense of scale grows with every passing moment until tens of thousands of CGI-enhanced soldiers overtake the final reel. From a stylistic and aesthetic viewpoint, his digitally amplified battle sequences are unmatched by anything in American cinema. Technologically, however, the effects lag a decade or more behind most of our current blockbuster releases.
The Curse of The Golden Flower is operatic eye-candy that attempts to outshine the epic magnificence of such filmmakers as David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor). Unfortunately, Yimou lacks their impeccable sense of historic import and personal context. In the Golden Flower's final moments, Yimou and his cast douse their fevered melodrama with a cascade of cynical and unexpected twists that address the personal toll of unchecked political power. This family which has worked so hard to rip itself apart (emotionally and physically) discovers a bit too late (much like the film itself) that final gestures cannot undo the mess that came beforehand.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.