"What I do not give, you must never take by force..."
You wanted it, you missed it, it's Martial Arts March: Week 3 edition! This week we're going back to a previously discussed director and examine yet another work with the 2006 film Curse of the Golden Flower.
Curse of the Golden Flower is directed by renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou. Here at "Everything is Permitted," we already have some experience with Zhang Yimou, because we watched one of his movies in our Raiders of the Bargain Bin segment for The Great Wall. We all agreed it was a pretty solid movie that probably should have gotten more love than it did. I only mention this now because I forgot to put it in my review of Hero, which I thought was superb and covered in week one.
The film stars Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Qin Junjie, and Liu Ye. Of those actors, you probably know Chow Yun-Fat, and possibly Gong Li, from her role as Hatsumomo in Memoirs of a Geisha. Jay Chou, whose main claim to fame is being a musician, recorded two songs for the soundtrack of this movie. Qin Junjie has starred in a few films but is mainly involved in TV, and Liu Ye has appeared in both film and television and was a judge on the show China's Got Talent for two years.
Curse of the Golden Flower's cast grabbed me pretty hard with their performances. Liu Ye is the oldest son, Crown Prince Wan, heir to the throne and a bit weak-willed. Jay Chou plays the middle son, Prince Jai who has only recently returned from his military service along China's frontier. Qin Junjie is the youthful and seemingly naive youngest son, Prince Yu. Gong Li is the Empress Phoenix, mother of both Prince Jai and Prince Yu. Finally, Chow Yun-Fat is Emperor Ping, and I love his portrayal of the Emperor.
Chow brings a calmness to the role that one must see to believe. At most points in the movie, the Emperor is cool, calm, and in total control. When his character is first introduced, the Emperor and Prince Jai have a sparring contest in which the Emperor never even bothers to stand up from his chair. It's a well-choreographed fight scene in which we establish that Emperor Ping is not to be trifled with. When the Emperor does lose his cool...well...I won't spoil the scene but suffice it to say that someone gets what's coming to them.
Chow Yun-Fat's performance is what truly pulled me into this movie, and if you haven't seen it, and decide to watch it based on what you read here, marvel at how much of a bastard the Emperor is and how well Chow plays him.
I must also tip my hat to the fantastic Gong Li for her performance as the Empress. As much of a bastard Chow Yun-Fat is, Gong Li is tragic, knows the sinister motives of Ping has planned but is powerless to intervene, except for the most desperate of gambles. Gong Li moves from stoic cynicism to heartfelt emotion superbly and if you'd like to see an actress at the top of her game, Curse of Golden Flower gives you that in Gong Li's performance.
The plot of the movie is something out of Shakespeare. The Emperor and Prince Jai are returning from their 3 year-long campaign in the frontiers of China for a holiday with the Imperial Family. Meanwhile back at the palace, it's revealed that something is very wrong with the Empress as she is suffering from a malady that she has been taking medicine to treat for some time.
Long story short, the Emperor is poisoning the Empress to drive her mad and she becomes aware of it and sets a plan in motion that could tear apart their family and have repercussions for all of China. The play King Lear has been cited as a possible influence for the movie. However, in a 2006 interview, Zhang Yimou said that the primary influence for Curse of the Golden Flower came from a 1934 play Thunderstruck by legendary Chinese playwright Cao Yu.
Curse of the Golden Flower mostly takes place within the Imperial Palace, and the setting is one that I never cease to marvel at. I'm never totally sure when Zhang Yimou is using hundreds of extras or using CG to fill in the crowds, but if it is entirely extras well damn, it is undoubtedly impressive. The palace itself is awash in color, and it is always a treat for the eyes to look at. It makes me wonder how much of the movie's setting is based on reality and how much Zhang Yimou played with the idea of the bright and colorful scenery to mask the ill intentions of those within it.
Another set that I particularly enjoyed was the "Imperial Inn" that was constructed at the natural landmarks of the Three Natural Bridges. When you look at the scenes the buildings are in, remember, this place does exist.
The costumes are all intricate and detailed, and it should be noted that this movie was nominated for Best Costume Design for the 2006 Academy Awards, where it lost to Marie Antoinette. Ironically enough Curse of the Golden Flower didn't even get nominated for Best Foreign Film for 2006. Had that been the case, it might have given me a difficult choice had it gone up again one of my favorites films, Pan's Labyrinth (it didn't win either).
Looking good, Sir
I can't break down the movie too much more because I might spoil the twists of the story. I saw Curse of the Golden Flower on DVD not long after it got its American release and was taken aback by how much I got into it.
If I were to criticize the film, I do feel that sometimes a couple of the plot beats get a little too shall I say, "Soap Opera-ish." I would have also liked to see more action from Chow Yun-Fat. I'm not decrying this movie for not having more fighting, but Chow Yun-Fat is a legend, and the one scene where he spars with his son is the only fighting he does in the entire movie. It's a little sad because Chow Yun-Fat is a very talented martial artist, and seeing scenes like this one in his older films makes you wish that Zhang Yimou could have turned him loose.
All in all, I recommend seeing Curse of the Golden Flower because it is a spectacle. While it's not the greatest movie out there, I do think it has a considerable amount of value in the drama and the story it does tell. Give it a watch, and you may like it as well.
4 out of 5 film reels.