- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2006

For Chinese director Zhang Yimou, it’s all about the excess. His masterful “House of Flying Daggers” (2004) and the action epic “Hero” (2003) vibrate with surreal color and gravity-defying action. When his stories grab us, we never question just how far he stretches reality.

That spell breaks midway through “Curse of the Golden Flower,” a re-imagining of Shakespearean drama folded into Chinese lore.

It’s still magnificent to behold, and a few of the action sequences stir us like flashbacks to the director’s better films. But “Curse” curdles when its dysfunctional family unit — an emperor’s clan, no less — turns on itself.

The tale is set around the Chong Yang Festival in A.D. 928, a gala celebrated with miles of chrysanthemums.

The emperor (Chow Yun Fat) is returning after an extended trip, but all isn’t well on the homefront. His wife, the empress (Gong Li), has been having an affair with her stepson, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye). And the couple’s two other sons are jockeying for power positions within the family.

When the action begins, we learn the empress has been taking medication for years, but only recently has the emperor secretly ordered tiny bits of poison to be added to the blend.

It’s hard to know why at first, but the mystery and the formalized way she downs the potion make us hungry for more.

The royal family’s animosity boils over to affect the emperor’s doctor and his doting wife (Chen Jin), who has a secret of her own that won’t surprise anyone in the theater.

We’re following our director so far, and even if we weren’t, it’s easy to delight in how he depicts the rituals of royal living. Assistants must make every waking moment of a royal’s life one of pleasure and comfort, and the smallest of movements become a living part of the pageantry.

“Curse” begins to falter when the family dynamics take a lethal turn. The film can’t supply the motivations for such moves, and when the screen suddenly fills with armed soldiers the confusion mounts.

It’s hard to know which side to cheer on, and the royal family itself leaves us without anyone resembling a hero.

The actors, who initially bring a palpable sense of entitlement to their roles, look equally lost. The empress spends much of the final reel in a state of shock, her face quivering as if she’s been stricken by fever.

Shigeru Umebayashi’s score follows a similar trajectory. It’s menacing at first, but eventually turns bombastic and crude.

The interiors of the royal palace alone make “Curse of the Golden Flower” an optic feast, with hallways stretching on for days in a combination of hyper-saturated colors and festive drumming.

“Curse of the Golden Flower” reveals that the director occasionally gets dazed by the beauty of his own work.


TITLE: “Curse of the Golden Flower”

RATING: R (Sword battle violence and mature themes)

CREDITS: Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Zhang Yimou and Yu Cao.

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com/curseofthegoldenflower/


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