Ranking: #9/111

Director:  Zhang Yimou (China) 

Genre: Epic Period Drama

When French film theoretician and critic, André Bazin, deliberated about the acute competition faced by cinema in the 1950s from television, he concluded in his essay “Will CinemaScope Save the Cinema?” that the film industry’s unique superiority lay in its “potential to deliver spectacle” (Andre Bazin’s New Media, p. 271).

The greatness of Curse of the Golden Flower is its marriage of spectacle and narrative. Has there ever been a more spectacular, more colourful, more vivid, more dramatic film? In this epic period drama, Zhang Yimou, Asia’s top living filmmaker, brings together all the unique strengths of cinema. It is a cinematic spectacle, a colour extravaganza, a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, a showcase of the most stylish and elegant costumes yet seen on the Big Screen and a riotous celebration of film’s emotive and sensory power.

The film’s colour palette is dominated by the Chinese imperial colours of gold, red and pink. Yimou made sure these colours were heavily saturated, then made even more vivid in the digital editing process. This intense colour range, which looks rich and, yet, sharp, suits the genre of an imperial period drama. Soft lighting effects, using filters and other diffusion techniques, were used on all the actresses. Lanterns gave a subtle light ambience, too. The overall visual effect is amazing.

The movie’s pace, especially in the opening sequences, was perfectly modulated for supporting the narrative and generating additional visual effects for the viewer. The rapid actions in these first scenes, including fast-paced walking through the interconnecting maze of corridors in the palace, are tracked with a mobile camera, using a stabilisation system, effectively creating a sense of the impending crisis in the kingdom. The tense, conflicted atmosphere is further reflected in the nervousness of the Empress in some world-class acting by Gong Li.

All in all, Curse of the Golden Flower is Asia’s answer to Lawrence of Arabia, Gone with the Wind, Dances with Wolves and other sweeping epics of Western cinema.

The acting by the two main characters, Chow Yun-fat as Emperor Ping and Gong Li as Empress Phoenix, is commanding. We feel the haughtiness and the mixed emotions of the Emperor throughout the various palace intrigues of the plot, just as we feel the angst of the Empress as she battles against being slowly poisoned (on the instructions of her husband), as a punishment for her infidelity.

The choreography of the battle scenes, pageantry and the martial arts and action sequences is quite sensational. It should be noted that this is not a martial arts film; for example, in the first thirty-eight minutes, there is only one minor martial arts sequence. The first major martial arts battle occurs fifty-seven minutes into the movie. The director achieves a superb balance of action and psychological development of the main characters, through dialogue, facial expressions, and cinematic metaphors. The production team used a Flying Cam effectively for some very difficult overhead shots, for example, when the Empress’s warriors storm the palace during her coup attempt. The attack by the Emperor’s warriors on the governor’s palace (where the Imperial Doctor and his wife have relocated) is superbly composed and filmed, with dynamic cinematic imagery.

About eighty-five percent of the movie was filmed with multiple cameras, just as Kurosawa used three cameras for his action-packed scenes in Seven Samurai and in his other films. The images obtained from the multiple cameras, when edited together with rapid cuts, enhance the feeling of a complex predicament brewing, with an intricate pattern of interplays between the different characters, as loyalties in the palace shift, with its whole rigid order about to implode.

Sound and image are well correlated in Curse of the Golden Flower to provide a rich sensory and aesthetical experience for viewers, while reinforcing the themes of the movie. A clear, strong soundscape is matched to an exceptionally vibrant colour palette. The result is a rich sensory and thematic tapestry.

The plot provides for a high degree of palace intrigue and political power struggles. The fictional story takes place in the Imperial Court in the tenth century. The Emperor’s second wife, Empress Phoenix, is having a scandalous affair with her step-son, Wan, the first son of the Emperor from his previous marriage. As the eldest son, Wan is the Crown Prince. He is also having an affair with Jiang Chan, daughter of the Imperial Doctor.

The second son, Prince Jai, returns from the battlefield, with his father and his army, and notices his mother looks very ill. She is fainting spells and suffers from anaemia. Jai notices that she’s obsessively embroidering with the motif of golden chrysanthemums (the “golden flower” of the title). She explains that the tea she drinks with her medication has been poisoned by her husband and that she is planning a rebellion in response, which she wants Prince Jai to lead.  The Imperial Doctor’s daughter, Chan, adds black fungus from Persia to her medication each day.

In an important sub-plot of the narrative, the Empress hires a lady dressed in black, who has a branded face, to find out what type of poison is being used. However, this woman is discovered by Prince Wan and taken to the Emperor. It turns out to be Jiang Shi, the Imperial Doctor’s wife. The Emperor pardons her and promotes the Imperial Doctor to the position of governor of Suzhou. However, he secretly plans to have them assassinated. Later the true identity of the Imperial Doctor’s wife is revealed – she is the Emperor’s first wife. He has told his family and everyone else that she died years before.

At one point, the third son of the Emperor, Prince Yu, enraged by the corruption going on in the palace, slays Crown Prince Wan. Yu is presented as a dark horse in the palace, brooding in the background, resentful that no one cares about him and that he is overshadowed by his older brothers. The Emperor then mercilessly beats Prince Yu to death. My one concern, at this point, is that the film sometimes slips into the over-elaboration of melodrama.

Then the rebellion orchestrated by the Empress begins. Inevitably, it fails, and Prince Jai, as its leader, is captured. At a Chrysanthemum (“golden flower”) Festival ceremony afterwards, the Emperor expresses his disappointment with Prince Jai and offers him a twisted form of redemption – if he takes part in the poisoning of the Empress, he’ll be pardoned. The young man refuses and kills himself, showing himself to the most noble of the three sons in the palace. As he dies, his blood spills into the cup of poisoned tea. The Empress overturns the cup of tea (all in slow motion), and the drops, symbolically, corrode the wood of the Emperor’s grand ceremonial table.

The three sons, then, have been destroyed by the failures of their parents. There have been so many torn loyalties, betrayals and conflicts in this royal household. It is presided over by a heartless Emperor. How can such torture and pain live side by side with such a beautiful exterior order of the palace? It really is a jarring contradiction at the heart of the narrative.

The narrative structure itself is tight and strong, with no lacunae or dead spaces, accompanied by a well-maintained pace.

Throughout the film, there is a contrast between outer order, regulated by ancient protocols and customs of the court (“heaven is round and earth is square”), and inner disorder. Behind the silk divides in the palace rooms, there is intrigue, jealousy, lust, hatred, guilt, fear and all manner of chaos. It is shown to be a loveless, empty kingdom. The director exposes the lie behind the myth of a heavenly order at the palace of a feudal kingdom. In reality, it has been divided by endless power struggles.

This masterpiece of Chinese cinema offers a savage critique of unaccountable feudal power structures.

There may be a distinctive, more Asian, cinematic aesthetic operating in Curse of the Golden Flower, but one thing is for sure: all the elements of cinema, the visuals, the narrative, the acting, the cinematography and choreography of the action sequences and the cinematic metaphors, have worked together in one magnificent unity. Curse of the Golden Flower is a dream of a film.