Broken China

Chow Yun-Fat stars as the Emperor of ancient China in Curse of the Golden Flower.
Curse of the Golden Flower (Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia)
Dir. Zhang Yimou; writ. Zhang Yimou, Wu Nan, Bian Zhihong; feat. Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Liu Ye (R)

The title Curse of the Golden Flower, which may or may not be an accurate translation of the Chinese Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia, heralds horror. If you are expecting monsters, look no further than members of the imperial family during the late T’ang dynasty. It is the eve of the Chrysanthemum Festival in 928 A.D., and the Emperor (Chow) assembles his wife and three sons for majestic ceremonial observances. For the past three years, the Empress (Gong) and the eldest son, Wan, whose birth mother is thought to have died long ago, have been conducting a clandestine affair. However, it is not clandestine enough — the Emperor knows, and he slips a toxic black fungus into the medicine that he makes his wife swallow several times a day, ostensibly to treat her anemia.

Learning that she is slowly being poisoned, the Empress schemes to overthrow the Emperor and replace him with her son, Jai. “After the Chrysanthemum Festival is over, I shall tell you the whole truth,” she promises, and the viewer remains as eager as Jai to find out exactly what is going on. Meanwhile, Wan, chafing in his palatial cage, plots to run off with the voluptuous daughter of the imperial physician. And Yu, son number three, harbors violent ambitions of his own.

“My concern is to protect law and order within the home,” says the Emperor when the Empress meekly questions one of his commands. It would be more accurate to say that his concern is to cling to the power that he, a junior officer, seized by marrying a princess. Though enemies lurk at the frontiers of his domain, the huge imperial household is meticulously governed. Every gesture at every moment — by princes as well as menials — adheres to rigid protocol. But the decorous deportment masks upheaval. Though Chinese history is not deficient in dissolute royalty, vile machinations within an imperial family might remind a Western viewer of the self-destructive decadence of the Borgias, Caligula, or Titus Andronicus. The theme of a woman methodically deranged by a cunning husband might make this film seem like Gaslight with gongs and chopsticks.

However, what is most striking about Curse of the Golden Flower is how it overwhelms the senses, and not only in a scene in the palace courtyard in which 10,000 golden chrysanthemums turn red from the blood of thousands of warriors whose corpses cover everything. As in Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern, characters are asphyxiated by the rituals of patriarchal aristocracy. But here he is much more lavish in filling the frame with gaudy fabrics and furnishings as well as floating, acrobatic combat. In terms of pomp and putrefaction, Marie Antoinette’s Versailles has nothing over this Emperor’s palace; as for the mass of servants and soldiers, let them eat bean cake. The dialogue is turgid, the sex lurid, the take on human nature fetid in this resplendent pageant of incestuous iniquity.

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