At the end of the Chinese historical epic Curse of the Golden Flower, tsunamis of soldiers wash down endless staircases and across field-size courtyards outside a 10th-century imperial palace. One army wears black armor, the other gold, and the very colors seem to be at war. It's as if Chinese director Zhang Yimou paints the battle scene with a palette of metal and bodies.
The climactic sequence resembles the final clash in The Two Towers and offers a vivid reminder of what Zhang can do with color. For two decades, the director and his cinematographers have presented some of the most vivid, hyper-real films being made, beginning with Red Sorghum in 1987. Time and again, Zhang Yimou does for primary colors what Hitchcock did with suspense scenes or Altman with overlapping dialogue. Zhang's shades and hues seem to color our dreams and can deepen our appreciation of what cinema can do.
In the first phase of his career, Zhang specialized in relatively small but rippingly entertaining tales of ordinary individuals -- usually women played by the beautiful Gong Li -- imprisoned by circumstances and thwarted in their attempts to escape. More recently, Zhang has dabbled with the wuxia genre, or martial arts epics, with Curse of the Golden Flower providing the third installment of a de facto trilogy, following the cerebral Hero and the lavishly emotional House of Flying Daggers.
The palace intrigue upstages the wire-work and fight scenes almost entirely in Curse of the Golden Flower, and at times Zhang seems as constricted by the courtly skullduggery as the film's Empress Phoenix (Gong Li, rejoining the director after a decade apart). Although adapted from a Chinese play from the 1930s, Curse's plot proves reminiscent of the Peter O'Toole/Katharine Hepburn film, The Lion in Winter. Both stories feature reunions of a royal family over a holiday, divided loyalties between three sons and high tensions between the ruler and his wife.
After an undefined separation, the Chinese Emperor Ping (Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat) returns to his wife's palace to observe the pomp and ceremony of a Chrysanthemum Festival. Also back on the scene is the tough, long-absent Prince Jai (Jay Chou), who greets his father with a sword-fight sequence, both men so heavily armored they could be robots.
Closer to the empress is sensitive, passionate Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), son of the emperor's first wife, who's been having an affair with his stepmother. There's also a youthful third prince (Qin Junjie), whose innate innocence will be corrupted by the family scheming.
Curse's introductory scenes feature seemingly scores of female servants dressing and doing each other's hair with drill-team coordination. The film's most powerful impressions come not necessarily from the characters, but their royal surroundings, which include functionaries who roam the halls and ceremoniously announce every hour. Every visible surface seems to display some kind of impossibly intricate design etched in precious metal.
The empress "officially" suffers from anemia and tremors, but we soon discover that the emperor, for obscure reasons, has ordered her medicine spiked with a black fungus that erodes her mental faculties. Given the elaborate rites and choreographed servants involved with taking the medicine, it's almost as if the ritualized royal life is killing the empress, not just the poison. The sumptuousness is practically drowning her.
Gong Li played another woman jailed by luxury in Zhang's Raise the Red Lantern, and masterfully conveys the empress' barely contained desperation. The actress doesn't use the character's condition for a performance of showy symptoms, but conveys the difficulties of maintaining control in a culture and position that values propriety above all things.
Curse doesn't stint on melodramatic plot twists, however, including incest and treason. Wan two-times his mother with a young servant (Li Man), while a mysterious, scarred older woman (Chen Jin) reveals lurid, explosive family secrets. Occasionally, the conflicts erupt in gravity-defying fights, but the martial arts mostly seem like afterthoughts. The heart of the film lies in intimate confrontations in close quarters, and the fights seem to come from other films entirely.
In the most thoughtful martial arts epics, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Yimou's House of Flying Daggers, the brawls and chases express feelings that characters otherwise can't contain, almost like the songs in a musical. Except for the final spectacle, the fights in Curse almost never have that emotional element.
Aspects of the emperor's character never seem resolved, either. Chow Yun-Fat may be better than the role deserves, giving a noble bearing and moments of tenderness to a despot who appears to be little better than a cruel schemer. Some of the emperor's most shocking decisions remain a mystery. Perhaps Zhang intends Curse to be an anti-authoritarian counterargument to Hero, which concluded with a morally questionable justification for tyranny.
Despite some sweetening with computer-generated images in the big battles, Curse of the Golden Flower feels like the product of a nation much older than our own, one that can count the age of households and families not just in generations, but in centuries. Perhaps the film's portrait of royal betrayals amid ancient, ornate surroundings would strike more of a chord in Europe than the United States. Curse of the Golden Flower seeks drama in personalities who don't so much shape history as are strangled by it.