Ms. Bai Ziaoyan
Golden oldie: Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat put on the ritz for Zhang Yimou's costume epic about the Tang Dynasty, 'Curse of the Golden Flower.'
Zhang Yimou's 'Curse of the Golden Flower' gilds the lilies of Chinese history
By Richard von Busack
WAS THE Tang Dynasty really Imperial China's Vegas period? Curse of the Golden Flower is Zhang Yimou's most decadent film yet. In previous films like Hero, he used meticulously balanced, saturated hues, reminding us all in the West that Technicolor went to China to die. Here, instead he applies a gaudy iridescence over a snoozy, portentous plot. Inside the palace are pillars made out of iridium, marching off into the horizon line; outside the palace are acres of, if not gilded lilies, at least dyed chrysanthemums. Yimou has devolved from the Chinese Vincente Minnelli to Busby Berkeley. Curse of the Golden Flower is like watching the march of a flock of spray-painted peacocks.
While the similarly sweaty and crazy—but far smarter—The Banquet still waits for release, this inferior film shows up. Color runs amuck against the slow-speed rebellion of a poisoned queen (Gong Li) lashed into the tightest imaginable corset. The official name for what she's got is "anemia," since she's being forced to slurp down a daily dose of poison from tiny translucent jade cups. Being Gong Li, she drinks the tea out of duty—dying from duty is what Gong Li just does—but the doctored tea doesn't kill her, it just gives everyone the sense that she is just about ready to jump out of her flawless skin.
Her evil emperor is the always-calm Chow Yun-Fat, further becalmed under salt-and-pepper whiskers. Everything in the palace runs on a timetable. The courtesans and ladies-in-waiting dress in unison, like the workers in Metropolis. At the turning of the hours, the emperor sends gong-bearing messengers through the halls to shout out the time. The emperor has a beady eye on all possible rebellion, but he is not as curious as he should be about his wife's tireless silk embroidering. "She seems to be obsessed with embroidering chrysanthemums," says a character helpfully, just in case we missed the significance. Maybe there's something more than mere wushu-fodder in this type of clock-watching madness, and some guarded symbolism in the overhead shots of this Clock Emperor, who has turned his family into figures on some vast dial. He is a Confucian gone nuts from furious insistence on the proper place of all humanity. Perhaps the story has some coded relevance to today's China, suggesting the nation as a clock wound so tightly that it threatens to shoot out its innerspring.
Regardless of this possibility, Huo Tingxiao's ornate art direction makes one crave something cleaner. The color goes so riotous that the Forbidden City looks like the Emerald City. I was muttering, "This movie needs flying monkeys," when some ninja assassins flew in, sliding down ropes grounded with grappling hooks, which they buried into the cast. Even the simple dramatic moment of a father and the son in a combat is crazily aestheticized. They are dressed in silver and gold uniforms with ornate epaulettes; they look like the kings from one of those rococo chess sets you see in gift catalogs. Stephen Chow, see this movie: your work is cut out for you.
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