Four years ago Zhang Yimou made the most expensive film in Chinese history, Hero, with an estimated budget of $30 million.
His latest epic, Curse of the Golden Flower, has a budget that’s reportedly around $45 million. A filmmaker who once constantly ran afoul of Beijing’s film censors has basically become the equivalent of a royal portrait-painter whose projects are heavily subsidized by the Chinese government. Not bad if you can swing it. However, the money appears to be yielding diminishing returns artistically, if this airless and impersonal movie is any indication.
The movie takes place in the 10th century A.D., as the emperor of China (Chow Yun-Fat) welcomes his three sons back home to celebrate the Chrysanthemum Festival after years of fighting in various wars. He isn’t in a festive mood, though, because he has discovered that his wife (Gong Li) has been carrying on an affair with Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), his son from a previous marriage. His response is to have his servants slowly poison the empress. For her part, she figures out what’s up and enlists her own son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), to lead an uprising against his father. Meanwhile, the third son (Qin Junjie) stews with resentment over being ignored. On a holiday dedicated to peace and harmony, most of the royals — not to mention tens of thousands of imperial soldiers — will die from all this family dysfunction.
This is the first collaboration between Zhang Yimou and Gong Li since the breakup of their professional and personal relationship 11 years ago. However, the movie’s less about their reunion than it is about Zhang indulging his visual style in yet another opulent, eye-popping epic. He covers the Imperial Palace grounds in yellow chrysanthemums for our benefit, and it is a marvelous sight to behold. The ornate interiors with embroidered wall coverings and reflective rainbow-colored columns are no less spectacular.
All this is great, but none of it will seem particularly new if you’ve seen Zhang’s Hero or House of Flying Daggers. The director is going through the motions here, failing to give this movie the same formal discipline of his earlier epics. The martial-arts sequences don’t measure up, either, though admittedly, this cast doesn’t have a performer on the order of Jet Li or Zhang Ziyi. The story never springs to life despite all its murder, incest, and political intrigue. There’s one nicely grotesque moment near the end when a royal flunkie announces the hour and gives a benediction (“Fortune and prosperity to all!”) while the grounds outside are thick with soldiers’ corpses. Had there been five or 10 more moments like that, the movie might have succeeded.
Like a few highly successful Western filmmakers, Zhang is using these big commercial projects to finance smaller, more personal films. His last one, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, was one of the better movies of 2006. Maybe making that film possible is the main achievement of Curse of the Golden Flower. As beautiful as it sometimes is, it falls far short of being the cinematic event that it was obviously intended to be.
Curse of the Golden Flower
Starring Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li. Written and directed by Zhang Yimou, based on Cao Yu’s play. Rated R.