Curse of the Golden Flower Review
It’s been a long time coming but Chow Yun-Fat finally stars in a worthy follow up to martial arts masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Under the guidance of Asian director of the moment Zhang Yimou, he plays hard line Chinese Emperor Ping, scheming to kill the Empress wife he hates (Gong Li). More of a wrought period drama with an epic final battle than the previous action-packed Yimou efforts of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower has the same lush visuals and tense personal dilemmas that have won him fans the world over.
Yun-Fat was last seen on the big screen cavorting as a protector of a lost scroll in the woeful Bulletproof Monk, a career move he’d probably rather forget. Then an inept script, badly written choreographed fights and hackeyed support from Seann William Scott added up to a poor showing all round. Here, as Emperor Ping of the 10th Century Tang Dynasty, he gets to sink his teeth into a meaty role as the head of a regal family on the verge of collapse in a film that does everything right. Ping is slowly poisoning Empress Phoenix, married only to secure his reign, while she secretly sleeps with her step-son and first born of the Emperor, Crown Prince Wan (Ye Liu). Wan, however, is also secretly bedding a servant whom he truly loves. Second son Prince Jai (Chou Jay) eagerly seeks to prove himself as leader of the armed forces leaving their youngest son Prince Yu (Qin Junjie) largely ignored. In the build up to the sacred Chrysanthemum Festival, the Emperor returns to his home in the Forbidden City as plots to force his abdication are made.
Curse of the Golden Flower was nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, and it’s easy to see why: it overwhelms the senses. The first half builds up the family tensions superbly, as Phoenix, Wan and the servant sneak around the cavernous rooms of the palace attempting to avoid arousing the suspicions of others. Stuck in a life of enforced customs and rituals, every false move can deemed as heresy to the Emperor and elevates mere melodrama to high drama to draw us in. Visually the interiors of the Emperor’s palace are so full of garish reds, greens and golds they almost veer on the vulgar rather than the wealthy, and the exteriors of the Forbidden City make for engulfing backdrops. When the action kicks in for the second half, Yimou only touches on the one-on-one fights of his previous films to turn towards ambushes from flying ninjas and a clash between two huge armies that rivals 300’s position as staging the year’s most impressive battle.
Chow Yun-Fat can be relieved that teaming up with Yimou has paid off. As Emperor Ping he oozes a formidable screen presence at the slightest hint of his character’s influence. His short but sweet bursts of confrontation remind us of how he stood out in Crouching Tiger and what we have been waiting for him to deliver since. Curse of the Golden Flower does not just echo the past triumphs of Yun-Fat and Yimou, it brings them into sharp focus as another example of their considerable moviemaking talents. With the rest of the cast, especially Gong Li’s tormented Empress Phoenix, producing what must be some of their finest work, this is an unmissable treat.
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