Curse of the Golden Flower
by Andrew James
Curse is the story of a Chinese Royal family in total disarray. With three sons all contending for the title of heir to the throne, the Emperor (Yun-Fat) has his hands full of jealousy and anger among his sons. Meanwhile he's been slowly poisoning the empress' tea that is slowly killing her. She (Gong Li) in turn is having some sort of weird, sexual affair with the second son that is not fullly explored or explained. As she learns of the attempt on her life, she devises a plot for revenge on her husband and vows to herself that she will dethrone him with the help of the eldest son, whose loyalty lies with her. All the while, the youngest son stews and pouts that his older brothers get all of the attention and he feels he is simply an afterthought.
The first thing one notices of Zhang's films of course, is his "overuse" of color and symmetry; especially in films such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Here is more of the same as the amount of color on screen at any given time is nearly a sensory overload sort of experience. In past films, Zhang and his cinematographer have experimented with color themes and styles to give each scene its own unique feel and rhythm. Here, save for one particular location, the film has no color theme in individual scenes. Instead, it is a technicolor dreamcoat of various hues splattered all over the screen that are bright, highlighted and glittery. I almost got nauseous trying to take in all of the visual cues. It was almost distracting to the story and it really turned me off.
Save for about a 10 minute sequence, the entire story takes place within the walls of the royal palace. So there is no escape into other locales. This also gets tired after a while. The courtyard filled with yellow chrysanthemums is sight to behold, but once we've seen it, we've seen it. It loses its appeal after 30 minutes. So the same color scheme is on screen for almost the entire running of the film; a smattering of bright highlights that began to hurt my eyes after a time.
When it comes to actors, the Chinese are kind of hit or miss. Chow Yun-Fat plays his deliciously evil character very well and he's believable and not likable (in a good way). The great Gong Li borders on exceptional once again in a role that suits her beautifully; a tad on the overly melodramatic side, but fantastic none the less. I could never tire of her acting prowess. The young men that play the three sons are mediocre at best. They flirt dangerously close to leaning towards the cheesy side of drama. It works in some cases, but at other times it is cringe worthy.
Those expecting a martial arts epic will be sorely let down here. There are some halfway decent fighting sequences within the film, but most are quick, short-lived and focus far more on the art of film rather than the art of swordplay or kung-fu. The final, "epic" battle sequence is an over the top exploration into CGI (something fairly new to Zhang as far as I know) and unbelievability. The ridiculousness of some of the things that happen during the course of the battle would have William Wallace kneeling and worshipping at the feet of some of these warriors. Still, it looks pretty damn cool and it does have the ability to be engrossing if you let it happen.
As stated before, the color themes employed are simply an attempt to one-up the competition and it just got to be too much for me after a while. But as I also stated, Zhang's films have a knack of growing on me after subsequent viewings. So I'll most definitely be seeing this again in the next couple of years and will reassess my findings then. For now though, this is a dramatic story with serious Shakesperean overtones and not as much swordplay as I expected or would have liked. But the performances by Gong Li and Yun-Fat are enough to keep me entertained; as was the intricate story of a royal family in turmoil. The trailer below is terribly misleading as this film is NOT the action extravaganza it appears. It is mostly a dramatic narrative with a very little bit of fighting sequences. I recommend watching Zhang's older films first for a far more enjoyable experience if you're looking for heartfelt but fast paced drama and martial arts.
IMDb.com - full cast and crew
FLIXSTER PROFILE for Curse of the Golden Flower