The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
FEAST FOR THE SENSES. Gong Li plays the Empress in Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower. Epic in scope and execution, the film is a blessing on Eastern and Western audiences alike, fusing courtly drama with martial-arts action to create a gorgeous jewel of a film. (Photo/Bai Xiaoyan, Film Partner International, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
From The Asian Reporter, V17, #2 (January 9, 2007), page 1 and 15.
"Curse" is a blessing
Curse of the Golden Flower
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Produced by William Kong, Zhang Weiping, and Zhang Yimou
Opens January 12
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
If you held a heavyweight title fight between the two biggest Asian directors in the Western world, in the champion’s corner would likely be Ang Lee, whose smash hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) led to Paramount signing him for its biggest 2005 hit, Brokeback Mountain. While some might argue for Wong Kar Wai (2046) or Park Chan Wook (Oldboy) as his challenger, the latest release from Zhang Yimou, Curse of the Golden Flower, has vaulted Zhang easily into second-place status behind Lee — if not into first.
Epic in scope and execution, Curse is a blessing on Eastern and Western audiences alike, fusing courtly drama with martial-arts action to create a gorgeous jewel of a film that may eclipse all its predecessors.
Zhang arguably rode Lee’s Tiger coattails to release his first Western hit, Hero, in 2002, followed by House of Flying Daggers in 2004. Both displayed his skill at combining martial arts with romance — nowhere better in evidence than when he brought the softer side out of action stars Chow-Yun Fat and Maggie Cheung — as well as his unmatched eye in creating colorful and perfectly framed scenes that might have leapt straight from masterpiece paintings. But while Ang Lee soon turned his sensibilities towards more Western themes, from his big-budget Hulk (2003) to the gay-cowboy tearjerker Brokeback Mountain, Zhang has remained solidly in the Eastern tradition.
In Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang brings all of his formidable skills to bear, creating a film that is simultaneously breathtaking, heartrending, pulse-pounding, and unabashedly Asian. The film is set in 10th-century China, where the Tang Dynasty is ruled by the Emperor (Chow-Yun Fat), a brilliant swordsman and master court tactician. Shortly before the annual Festival of the Chrysanthemums, he returns unexpectedly from battle with his second son Prince Jai (Jay Chou). At the palace, his chronically ill Empress (Gong Li) has been plotting with her secret lover and stepson, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye). Wan, meanwhile, longs to escape with the beautiful Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the Imperial Physician (Ni Dahong), who is also involved in his own scheme and hides other secrets, as well. If this sounds tangled, it only reveals a fraction of the twisted and baroque plot lurking behind the multicolored façade of the Imperial Palace.
It is a testament to Zhang’s skill that he can both clearly reveal the tangled plot skeins and present the grand spectacle of imperial Chinese life without allowing either to dominate the viewer’s mind. The movie is marked by the chanting of the hours of the day, the rituals of everyday life, and the preparation and execution of the Festival of the Chrysanthemum, all of which carry both literal and symbolic meaning. Much of the film’s attraction to Western audiences comes from its exotic locale and distinctively Chinese flavor — balance, harmony, and order are inescapable elements of the Imperial court and the elaborate decorations and costumes that fill the screen. These themes are expressed verbally by the Emperor and covertly by Zhang’s precise cinematography, revealing the hidden symmetries of the imperial world.
But lest viewers fear that they are in for a dull, plodding tale of chilly looks and whispered schemes, Zhang offers a healthy dose of martial arts mayhem, too. Ninjas both beautiful and deadly fly unexpectedly into the screen, and the glittering Imperial Guard display their skills in several spectacular battles. Even the Emperor shows off his swordwork and, soon enough, the beautifully gilded background drips with the blood resulting from all those whispered schemes. Here, too, Zhang shows his love of balance, as every viewer will find something to love about Curse of the Golden Flower, which may be the best of any film in Lee or Zhang’s vast pantheon, if not the best film of this year.
And what of that heavyweight showdown between Asian directors Lee and Zhang? While the early rounds would undoubtedly go to Lee, Zhang seems only to get better as he goes along, turning the match into a split decision. Some judges would admire Lee’s cinematic skill in capturing the craggy mountains of Wyoming, but there is no doubt that Zhang is his equal in this regard. Both are deft with plot, get the most out of every actor, and create themes that whisper instead of shout. But if Asian judges scored the fight, they’d have to give the edge to Zhang Yimou, who never loses his distinctively Chinese outlook and can make the exotic accessible and comprehensible without ever making it pedantic.