The Reeler


December 21, 2006

Curse of the Golden Flower

Clumsy, impersonal spectacle may be the worst movie Zhang Yimou has ever made

There was a time when Zhang Yimou made movies the Chinese government could be relied upon to ban for one reason or another. Now, he makes state-sanctioned art: The 2008 Beijing Olympics' opening and closing ceremonies are his to coordinate, and Curse of the Golden Flower feels like a trial run, with its high concentration of people walking down hallways while hordes of synchronized extras perform menial tasks.

Better that, though, than the film's attempts at actual drama. Curse's opening cross-cuts between two equally audacious spectacles: the advance of an entire Imperial Army upon a palace and Gong Li (above) putting on make-up. It's the first time Zhang and Li have worked together since the dissolution of both their personal and professional relationships in 1995, and while there's something impressive about the fear and trepidation with which the camera seems to regard her now, it doesn’t compare to the intimacy of their previous work. Perhaps casting Li as a frigid Empress with a taste for incest is Zhang's idea of revenge, but it gets lost in the spectacle.

The plot is hardly worth summarizing; it's brutally complicated without yielding any logical consequences. Suffice it to say that the 10th-century Imperial Family is at odds with itself, plotting all kinds of poisonings, coups and murders. The results are, for a while, amusingly silly, and there are elements worthy of praise: the splendor of the production design (aside from some unfortunate rainbow patterns on the walls that make the palace resemble a hippie Chinese restaurant somewhere in San Francisco); the clunky but still mildly impressive roaming extra; the occasional bursts of admittedly spectacular action.

Nevertheless, compared with Zhang's previous two forays into martial arts -- or any competent wuxia film, really -- Curse comes up short. Packed with deadly dull dialogue and confrontation after confrontation, Curse sorely lacks the kind of swordplay that Hero and the even more astonishing House Of Flying Daggers delivered. It hardly mattered that neither film made a great deal of sense, as both were gorgeous and full of surprises that mitigated their stupidity (and sometimes their fuzzy CGI work, which Curse suffers from as well). Curse has a few shining moments -- honorable mentions go to the hybrid ninja-Tarzan dudes who swing around on strings hanging from scythes -- but saves the best for last, by which time the movie's relentlessly dull histrionics (backed at every turn by a choir that refuses to shut up) have taken their toll. You do, however, have to hand it to a movie that makes the casual slaughter of almost 10,000 people its heady climax.

Curse Of The Golden Flower may be the worst movie Zhang has ever made (an honor previously reserved for 1989's obscure Operation Cougar, and I'd much rather sit through a cheesy attempt to integrate '80s action conventions into a message about reuniting Taiwan and China than this torpid nonsense). What's disheartening about Zhang's failure isn't its impersonality as a visual spectacle -- Zhang's best work as a character-driven director is far behind him -- but that it's such an uninspired one. He can be forgiven for tiring of battles with the government and agreeing to play along, but if Zhang has given up on delivering original visuals as well, we're in trouble.

Advertise on The Reeler

Post a comment


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Search The Reeler
Join the Mailing List

RSS Feed


Send a Tip