If Cecil B. DeMille had directed an episode of “Dynasty,” the end product would probably have looked much like Curse of the Golden Flower. Reportedly the most expensive film in China’s history, director Zhang Yimou has created the most decadent soap opera ever.
As a result, this film is best taken with a couple grains of salt and a side of Tums. Zhang masks his campy plot with iridescent colors and elaborate, cleavage-inducing costumes. Curse of the Golden Flower is an over-the-top theatrical extravaganza where the shimmering golden milieu is lively, but the story is vapid.
Zhang works his alchemy from the start as the film opens in a glistening 10th-century Tang Dynasty palace. Scores of scantily clad women eagerly prepare for the return of Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat). The only woman not hurriedly binding her waist is his wife Empress Phoenix (Gong Li).
We soon find out their union is so corrupt that each is secretly planning the other’s annihilation. The emperor is slowly decaying his wife’s sanity with a special potion, while the empress is planning a coup the night of the upcoming Chrysanthemum Festival. Their three sons, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), Prince Jie (Jay Chou) and Prince Yu (Junjie Qin), must individually decide where their allegiances lie.
If that wasn’t enough, Zhang piles on the intrigue with Byzantine bloodlines, forbidden love affairs and incest.
As each member of the family (slowly) finds out about each other’s ploy, they emote delayed, strangely contorted facial expressions that would be better left in silent cinema.
Zhang leaves behind much of the swooping martial-arts action of his last two films Hero and House of Flying Daggers for the opulent grandeur of medieval China. And what a glittering concoction it is. Nearly every scene is basked in cornea-searing colors, practically illuminating a darkened theater. Everything, even Gong’s three-inch fingernails, is slathered in gold.
But, Zhang’s ruse can’t sustain the film’s gamut. When the royal family’s house of cards finally crashes, the characters’ are so underdeveloped that their actions are listless and the subsequent bloody warfare is stagnant.
Zhang would be best served to return to the psychological intricacies of his earlier films Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern.
This sordid tale is too trivial to match the film’s sumptuous extravagancies. Curse of the Golden Flower aspires to Shakespearean heights, but settles for luxurious daytime television.