Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Chow Yun-fat, Gong Li
Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower is an intimate family tragedy played at the level of spectacular, operatic grandeur. Telling a story of revenge, divided loyalties, forbidden loves, and power, and involving a husband, a wife, their sons, and another family that exists in the shadow of theirs and contains explosive secrets that, once brought to light, might destroy everything, Curse of the Golden Flower has a little bit of everything packed into its narrative. It also has a more is more (is more!) aesthetic informing its visuals, including enormous, elaborate sets and scenes which involve a massive number of extras, Curse of the Golden Flower is one of the great cinema spectacles, right up there with those old Hollywood films that played on an almost impossible scale, such as Ben-Hur, Cleopatra and Intolerance.
As a narrative, Curse of the Golden Flower plays out like the violent, climactic finale of a multi-volume saga. At the center of that saga is The Emperor (Chow Yun-fat), a man who rose to power by marrying the Empress (Gong Li), daughter of the former Emperor. Together they have two sons, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), who has been living on the frontier as part of his military posting, and Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), still a teenager and treated as more or less superfluous due to the existence of Prince Jai and their eldest brother, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), the Emperor's son from his first marriage. For some time, Wan and the Empress have been engaged in an affair, though his heart belongs to Jiang Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the royal family's doctor. On the orders of the Emperor, the doctor has been slowly poisoning the Empress, administering small doses of "medicine" to her several times a day, and though the Empress realizes that something is amiss, she's powerless to do anything. If she refuses to take the medicine, she must directly accuse the Emperor of trying to kill her, which she cannot do because he holds all the power. So she has to keep taking the poison, knowing that she's being poisoned, and try to unseat the Emperor through subterfuge before the poison destroys her brain.
To that end, she convinces Prince Jai to help her. Though he is reluctant to work against his father, he can't stand idly by and let his mother be murdered, either, and so he agrees to lead an army of the Empress' supporters in a coup. Meanwhile, the Emperor comes face-to-face with Jiang Shi (Chen Jin), a spy hired by the Empress to find out what, exactly, is in the "medicine," and who is not just the wife of the doctor but also the first wife of the Emperor. Though the official story is that the Emperor's first wife is dead, she managed to survive the slaughter of her family which coincided with the Emperor's rise to power and now she wants revenge against him. Rather than punish her for spying in the palace, the Emperor instead arranges for her and her family to be sent away by promoting the doctor to the position of Governor of a nearby province - or, so it would seem. Instead, his intention is to have the family assassinated after they've arrived in the province, which doesn't quite work out as planned. Jiang Shi and her daughter make it back to the palace in time for the annual Chrysantemum ceremony, unwittingly walking into the major family drama of the royals, as well as the clash of forces loyal to the Emperor, those rebelling under the leadership of Prince Jai, and a third, smaller group on a mission that no one anticipated.
Even if the family drama that keeps the narrative moving doesn't entice you - and I'm not sure why it wouldn't, since stories of palace intrigue and people maneuvering against each other to take the throne are pretty popular right now - Curse of the Golden Flower is worth seeing just for the climactic battle scene. At the time of its release, this was the most expensive Chinese film ever made and you can definitely see where the money went. The sets are beyond elaborate, full of vibrant color and exquisite detailing, and the costumes are made to match, so ornate and heavy-looking that you have to wonder how the actors even managed to move in them. But it's the battle scene at the end that will blow you away with its sheer scope and with the film's ability to keep so many moving pieces working in harmony together. It's an ambitious sequence, breathtaking in both the size of its undertaking and in the skill with which it is depicted.
The film is a decadent visual feast and it would be worth watching simply for how painstaking and ultimately stunningly beautiful it's production is, but even though the general critical consensus with respect to its story seems to be lukewarm, I would also recommend it for its narrative. While the intrigues between the characters and the convoluted, tragedy-in-the-making nature of their relationships aren't groundbreaking and have been seen time and again in stories that riff on Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, and many other literary traditions, that doesn't mean that they aren't put to good use here. The three sons are drawn well in terms of the motivations which drive the film's climax - Wan is the chosen son, the heir who feels out of place in his position and would rather lead a simpler life; Jai is the born leader driven not by ambition, necessarily, but by being forced to make a choice when his loyalty to his father and his loyalty to his mother creates a division; Yu is the forgotten third son, intentionally underdeveloped by the story in order to underscore just how little he factors into everyone else's plans, much to their detriment - and, as played by Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li, the Emperor and the Empress are never less than fascinating. So, while Curse of the Golden Flower might not be the best film in Zhang Yimou's filmmography, it's still a film with an incredible amount to its credit.