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UPDATED: December 30, 2006 NO.2 JAN.11, 2007
No Midas Touch for ‘Golden Flower’
Zhang Yimou’s latest martial arts epic, Curse of the Golden Flower, has a false glitter

Cashing in on the worldwide appeal of Ang Lee's 2000 martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Director Zhang Yimou's latest wuxia offering, Curse of the Golden Flower, is a box office success but has attracted mixed reviews at home and abroad.

As critics are nostalgic for his earlier allegories of China's social ills, Zhang would be better off returning to making movies about the plight of ordinary people that are rich in humanity. The critically acclaimed films may lack luster, but they speak a universal language that touches people's hearts. Ambitious as it may be, Curse lacks the intimacy that audiences crave.

Bold and furious like his previous kungfu blockbusters Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang's latest martial arts fantasy tells of an imperial blood feud in a late Tang Dynasty (618-907) court. Illicit passion and betrayal abound in the troubled court, and on the eve of the Chung Yang Festival, when Chinese pay respects to the deceased, blood is splattered in the iridescent palace against the backdrop of the seasonal flower, the golden chrysanthemum, in full bloom. The vibrant hues in the film set a surrealistic stage for a gloomy melodrama loosely based on Lei Yu (Thunderstorm), written by famed Chinese playwright Cao Yu in 1934.

As dark secrets are revealed and the empress (played by Gong Li) is punished for having an illicit affair with her stepson, she devises a secret plot to usurp the throne, which triggers a tumultuous battle in the royal court.

The film showcases mesmerizing performances by Chinese celluloid icons Gong and Chow Yun-fat, as the emperor. Gong's operatic delirium as the slowly poisoned empress embodies a powerful Medea-like figure caught in an Oedipus complex. But the film debut of Taiwan's teen idol Jay Chou (as Prince Jie) is a disappointment. The introverted singer fails to convey the valor of a tragic-heroic warrior.

The film offers some bewildering martial arts sequences devised by Hong Kong's premiere action director, Tony Siu-tung Ching. Most notable are the roof-hovering ninjas and assassins who descend into the court in spellbinding visual sweeps. But the subsequent head-on epic battle is not so cunning: the tediously long and bad scenes of uniformed troops in golden and gray armor swarming on the screen leave no room for crafty mises en scène. The humans only turn to mind-numbing violence that serves to detach viewers. And the swift replacement of flowerpots, cleansed of blood splashed in the imperial courtyard, turns the film into an unrealistic spectacle.

The lurid crimes in the palace demonstrate the oppressiveness of opulence. The film's visceral brutality, such as the emperor's vehement beating of the young prince with a belt, leads viewers to wonder if a deus ex machina is needed to resolve the unredeemed bloodshed. Curse may be glittering with gold, but the director lacks the Midas touch to make it credible.


The author is a New York-based writer.



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