Without Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon we might not have ever heard of Yimou Zhang. Zhang is the one that gave us Hero and House of Flying Daggers, both incredibly epic martial art dramas that had crossover appeal for North American audiences hankering for authentic wire-fu period pieces. Zhang’s latest, Curse of the Golden Flower, is the most expensive movie in Chinese history and the country’s entry for the Best Foreign Language film prize at this year’s Oscars. Like past efforts, Curse is unquestionably beautiful to watch, but I think it’s missing some of the heart that typified Zhang’s past efforts.
Based on Cao Yu’s 1934 drama Thunderstorm, Curse takes place during the Tang Dynasty in the 10th century and is inspired by the failed rebellion of Huang Chao. Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat) is consolidating his power with the return of his second son Jai (Jay Chou) from the frontier; his intention is to have Jai replace his first born son Wan (Liu Ye) as Crown Prince. At the same time, the Emperor is having his wife, Empress Phoenix (Gong Li from Miami Vice), slowly poisoned for some unknown reason. The Empress in turn conspires to remove the Emperor from the throne by using Jai to insight rebellion.
Zhang is absolutely Shakespearean in his material with themes of honour, betrayal, duty, family and, oh yes, incest. The whole thing comes apart in this Hamlet-like crescendo of killing, suicide and literal back-stabbing that the Bard would stand up, salute and say, “Now why didn’t I steal that.” Using beautiful long shots and an actual army of extras, Zhang performs extravagant action sequences where spears and arrows fly with the grace of a flock of birds. There are also crazy, masked ninja guys who look cool and Chow Yun-Fat gets to show off his skills in a couple of scenes, but mostly it’s left up to the thousands of extras to get down and dirty with the kung fu fighting.
But while the fight scenes were unquestionably awesome to use just the right turn of phrase, I felt an essential ingredient lacking. The problem is that Curse seems to lack any soul, any heart, any…well, just any kind of investment in the characters that enables us to care about them. There’s really no rhythm or reason to any of it except that the Emperor is a jerk and the Empress is distant and bored. The thing about Shakespeare is that he made you understand all the motivations and posturing. Was something lost in translation? I don’t know, the thing was subtitled, not dubbed so I can’t help think that a few lines were deleted.
Overall, Curse of the Golden Flower is fun and visually exciting, but its soap opera theatrics left me wanting. In what is surely a case of beauty over brains, Zhang’s curse is that he lets the pictures over-stimulate while the inner workings of the family dynamic are left up to the imagination of the viewer in order to fill in the multitude of blank spaces. Cool to look at with occasional bouts of humour and pathos, Curse is decent enough to recommend for some high-flying martial arts fun.