Before we begin, I need you to find a piece of paper. The paper, handmade, should be dyed with saffron to a dawn-sky orange and scented with a thousand chrysanthemum petals. Find your calligraphy brush, its silver handle tarnished from years of use and wrought with a motif of fishing cranes, and its companion inkwell, filled with ink made from hand-crushed indigo flowers.
We will be using this paper to keep track of the soap-opera-style interconnectivity of Curse of the Golden Flower. Our dramatis personae: the Imperial family, consisting of the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) the corseted Empress (Gong Li), and three sons, Wan, Jai and Yu, from eldest to youngest, the first from the Emperor's dead corseted first wife. Then we have the Imperial doctor, and his unnamed corseted wife and corseted daughter, Chan.
The movie opens just before the yearly Chrysanthemum Festival, the eponymous golden flower, the day on which Wan's mother died twenty-five years ago. It then quickly establishes a semi-incestuous pairing of Wan and his step-mother, the forbidden love of Wan and Chan, the poisoning of the Empress's hourly "anemia" medicine by the doctor and his daughter on orders from the Emperor, the Emperor's plans to have Wan removed from the post of Crown Prince to be replaced by Jai, who . . . .
And we'll stop there with the plot and basically leave it at this: Curse of the Golden Flower could be considered a film about the worst Thanksgiving dinner ever. Up to and including the kid who ends up screaming "What about me, who's going to pay attention to me?" and the father who swings from impassive calm to pulling out the belt in a matter of minutes. Throw in some swords and ninjas (yes, yes, ninjas are Japanese, leave me alone) and you've got yourself a movie.
A gorgeous one, at that. Much of the pleasure in this movie, in fact, is derived from soaking in the immense level of detail in the art-design. The first encounters with the rainbow-colored halls of the palace are enhanced by the elaborate silks worn by the characters as they stalk from one dun Dun DUN moment to the next. We glimpse parts of the immense system needed to maintain an Imperial palace through numerous shots of armies of workers planting, grinding grains, washing clothes, etc in unison, a well-oiled, faceless machine. And director Zhang Yimou's careful attention to the ceremony of the day-to-day life of the Imperial family is simply entertaining to watch.
All that said, I am conflicted about Curse of the Golden Flower. Its melodramatic plot points are sometimes so far over the top that they come out the other side. But, both Chow Yun-Fat's cold, scheming Emperor and Gong Li's resolute but shaky, insane Empress demand full attention whenever they are on screen. Their performances, however, are undercut by those of Liu Ye as the Crown Prince and Li Man as the doctor's daughter, both of whom seem to have graduated from the Joey Tribiani School of Soap Acting and Gnashing of Teeth and Pulling of One's Own Hair.
Curse is being totally mis-advertised, at least in the US – it is not a wire-fu sword-fest, but an epic opera with no real protagonist that builds to a tragedy both real (thanks to Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li) and ridiculous. There were a number of directorial missteps that took me out of the film: shots that drew far too much attention to themselves, repetitions of motifs (like the servants working in the castle) that served no purpose, not even as moments of peace in the turmoil, and obvious use of CGI to build large crowds.
The very fact I'm even complaining about the last is a sign that the story was not really keeping my attention as it should have. I was able to call most of the developments before they happened, more due to predictability than the inexorable inevitability you get in good tragedy. (That right there should be my segue into the tunnel-visioned but almost unavoidable aside about Crouching Tiger; I'll leave it as an exercise for you, dear reader.)
Unfortunately, I think Curse could have been great with the right tweaks, but it sprung the trap of all truly ambitious undertakings: by missing greatness by just a little, it ends up missing "very good" as well. But, I can't entirely dissuade you from seeing it, either, because I do think that there is much to be praised here. My score should be treated like the center of a wavering needle, held in the hands of a spasming Empress. With that, I clasp my hands together, bow my head, and back out of the room.