Friday, 2 November 2007

review: curse of the golden flower (zhang yimou, 2006)

Even by the increasingly ornate, florid standards of Zhang Yimou's films, Curse of the Golden Flower breaks new ground for baroque ostentation. I am pretty sure this is, by some distance, the most colourful film I have ever seen. It is often visually beautiful; however, unlike Zhang's previous films, even including his previous martial arts epics Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), his masterly grace is absent; Curse of the Golden Flower achieves its beauty through sheer, pummelling, piled-on spectacle. The camera swoops, pans and dollies, intricate textures and seas of colour wash over the spectator; it's an eyeful, certainly, but there's no real style or meditative thought to it. Nothing here achieves the austere loneliness of the palace in Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Zhang's best film, or the otherworldly stillness of the lake scene in Hero. Its beauty is a brash, loud, empty one.

An argument could be made, of course, for this being entirely intentional - the film, after all, tackles the theme of corruption hiding behind luxury, tradition and ritual, and the shallowness and sheer, ridiculous exaggeration of the film's aesthetic reflects that of the imperial Forbidden Palace in which it takes place. The colourfully-screened, richly-fabriced inner chambers and the majestic, flowered courtyards of the Palace are the venue for a melodramatic, frequently histrionic tale of corruption, deceit, incest, rivalry, jealousy and betrayal.

It cannot be denied that Curse of the Golden Flower has some resoundingly successful moments; the story isekf is an engaging one, on a simple potboiler level, and excellent performances from Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat help in humanizing and nuancing what could have descended into aristocratic soap opera. The sequences, towards the start, where Zhang cuts away from the protagonists to reveal dozens of servants toiling away behind the scenes to allow the imperial family to live their privileged life reminded me of similar thematic digressions in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels. Like the crumbling, labyrinthine castle of Peake's novels, the Forbidden Palace here takes on a life as a hermetic world of its own, defined by strict, hierarchical class divisions, ritual and the crushing weight of tradition governing every step.

There is also a strong and clearly thought-out system of images in the film; from Empress Phoenix's poisoned medicine being associated with the elaborate ritual with which it is served (it starts to seem as if it is the ritual itself that is slowly killing her), to the Emperor's oppressive army, that fights with immovable steel walls and binding ropes.

The problem is that this is territory that Zhang covered much, much, much better in Raise the Red Lantern, one of the greatest films ever made about ritualised, aestheticized oppression; in fact, one of the greatest films ever made. Curse of the Golden Flower is little better than a shadow to it, lacking its measured thoughtfulness, its gentle beauty, its calm surface hiding a deep, seething anger.

The other problem is that, after an hour or so as a good, if not great, drama, the film switches gear completely as it heads into an epic martial arts battle climax. Not only does this not fit the tone of the film, it is also executed surprisingly poorly and unconvincingly; it is difficult to believe this is the same director that brought us the astonishing, groundbreaking martial arts sequences of Hero and House of Flying Daggers.The ending seems tacked on, as if Zhang felt the need to continue in the vein of his recent
wu xia epics, while also feeling the need to return to his earlier dramatic pieces. The result is a film that lacks focus and subtlety, grace and emotion, and, while far from a disaster, is also far from the level we expect of Zhang.

1 comment:

Noel Tanti said...

it's more or less what i thought as well