Director Zhang Yimou lately has alternated between martial arts
epics like
HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS and intimate fare
such as
RIDING ALONE FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES. But nothing has
come close to his latest,
THE CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER.
Adapting a play by Cao Yu that had previously been filmed at least
twice before (once in 1957 with Bruce Lee), Zhang has reset the action
to the 10th Century during the Tang dynasty and made some alterations
to the plot.

      In Zhou's version, the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) returns from
warfare with his middle son Jai (pop singer turned actor Jay Chou)
ostensibly to celebrate the Chong Yang Festival (symbolized by yellow
chrysanthemums). The Empress (Gong Li) is a bit suspicious, however.
She and her husband have settled into an uneasily chilly relationship
and she has sought solace in the company of her stepson, the Crown
Prince Wan (Liu We). For his part, Wan has also been juggling a
secret relationship with Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the Imperial
Doctor and the servant who presents the Empress with her daily
medicine. For her part, the Empress suspects that the concoction
prepared at the direction of her husband may be slowly poisoning her.       
The couple also seems to neglect their youngest son Yu (Qin Junjie).

      Zhang has created a mix of grand opera and Grand Guignol
that is a feast for the eyes and the ears. Production designer Huo
Tingxiao has created a gorgeous mosaic of colors from pale pastels
to deep golds and reds. The sumptuous costumes by Yee Chung Man
reflect the color palettes of the sets, and all has been wondrously
captured by Zhao Xiaoding's expert cinematography.

      The film seems to borrow heavily from Shakespeare, with
aspects of various tragedies from
MACBETH to TITUS ANDRONICUS
to KING LEAR. One critic also pointed to James Goldman's play
THE LION IN WINTER due to the battling spouses and power plays
for succession to the throne. The film does veer toward melodrama
with the introduction of a mysterious woman (Chen Jin) who turns
out to have ties to several of the characters. (Astute audience
members can probably figure who she is.)

      As befitting such a large-scale effort, the acting tends to
be slightly exaggerated. Chow gets to stretch as an actor, playing
essentially a nasty man determined to exact revenge. The younger
set, Jay Chou, Liu Ye, Li Man and Qin Junjie, all acquit themselves
nicely. The real star, though, is Gong Li. After more than a decade,
she and Zhang Yimou have reteamed professionally and the
results are stunning. Gong commandeers every frame of the movie        
in which she appears. Whether decked out in all her glory (which
include golden talons and numerous hairpins) or in more subdued
attire, she cuts a beautiful and impressive figure.

      One might quibble with the CGI battle sequences at the film's
climax which seem like outtakes from
THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but
that's a small complaint. As long as
THE CURSE OF THE GOLDEN
FLOWER
concentrates on the scheming royals in their lush and lavish              
 setting, it soars.
      
              
                     
 Rating:                 B +
                     
 MPAA Rating:        R for violence
                     
 Running time:       114 mins.

                      Viewed at the SONY Screening Room
The Curse of the Golden Flower
(Man Cheng Jin Dai Huang Jin Jia)
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.