The greatest Chow on earth
Curse of the Golden Flower
Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower begins with two intercut sequences that give us a visual cue to the countercurrents running throughout the movie. An introductory title tells us we are in “China, Later Tang Dynasty, 928 A.D.” Deep in the elegant environs of Beijing’s Forbidden City, a dormitory inhabited by what seem to be hundreds of exquisitely gorgeous women is awakened by the gongs and ritual incantations of a sort of Chinese version of Europe’s medieval town criers: “It is the Hour of the Tiger!” As the women wash themselves in crystalline waters poured into golden basins, stepping lightly into their silk gowns and delicate slippers, the film cuts back and forth between them and a thundering horde of black-clad horsemen galloping through the dark (the Hour of the Tiger is evidently sometime before dawn). Zhang and his cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding startle our wide eyes with the contrast between the gleaming sparkle of imperial splendor, set to delicate chimes, and the menacing darkness underscored by the earthquake rumble of pounding hooves.
The sequence sets up the collision at the heart of the film, culminating as the women—awake, dressed and ready—come together as the retinue of the Empress (Gong Li), who is prepared as dawn breaks to greet her returning lord and master the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat), whom we come to understand was at the head of that column galloping hell-for-leather through the early morning dark. A messenger arrives to inform her that the ceremony of welcome has been cancelled; the Emperor has chosen to pause at his hunting lodge outside the city. Beneath her calm exterior, we see the Empress feel the snub as sharply as a slap to her porcelain face. We see, even before we know who these people are, that this marriage is no match between soul-mates.
Once this overture is in place, the movie (adapted by Zhang, Wu Nan and Bian Zhihong from the play Thunderstorm by Cao Yu) wastes no time in telling us who the players are in this palace drama. The Empress is engaged in a three-year affair with the Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), the Emperor’s first son by a previous marriage. Wan, however, has fallen in love with Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the royal physician (Ni Dahong), and has no desire to rule. He wants his father to designate Prince Jai (Jay Chou) as his heir. Both the Emperor and the Empress (Jai’s mother) are in favor of this, as is Jai himself. But each has his or her own ideas about exactly how the change in the succession should come about.
Meanwhile, we learn that at the Emperor’s behest, the royal physician has added a secret ingredient to the Empress’ daily medicine: a mysterious “black fungus” of Persia that, over a period of months, will render her insane. In time, the Empress herself will learn of this plot from a mysterious woman who has her own reasons for despising the Emperor, and the knowledge will add urgency to the Empress’ plans to surprise her husband at the upcoming Chrysanthemum Festival—the chrysanthemum being the “golden flower” of the title.
It would take a more erudite scholar than I to judge the historical accuracy of Curse of the Golden Flower; I suspect that it has about as much to do with Chinese history as King Lear has to do with British history, or Hamlet with the history of Denmark. In any case, Zhang’s aim is to weave a lurid tapestry of conspiracy and bloodshed, the kind of thing Shakespeare cranked out in his heyday before the English profs got hold of it and exalted the poetry over the action and intrigue. In this he is splendidly successful, taking us from courtly, veiled discourse and furtive incest, in the ornate red-and-gold luxury of the imperial palace, to the nocturnal strikes of black-clad assassins swooping out of the night sky like locusts, to a climactic battle on the palace grounds deploying what looks like millions of soldiers—black on one side, gold on the other, like a mega-chessboard.
Curse of the Golden Flower may invoke Shakespeare, but it’s more a teasing invocation than a serious ambition. It’s less King Lear than The Lion in Winter (minus the snide comedy), less Shakespeare than Cecil B. DeMille. But, after all, showmanship is a kind of poetry, too.