China, later Tang Dynasty, 10th century. At the eve of the Chong Yang Festival golden flowers fill up the Imperial palace. The Emperor returns unexpectedly with his second son Prince Jai. His pretext is to celebrate the holiday with his family, but given the chilled relations between the Emperor and the ailing Empress, this seems to not be his true reason. For many years the Empress and Crown Prince Wan, her stepson, have had an illicit liaison. Feeling trapped, Prince Wan dreams of escaping the palace with his secret love Chan, the Imperial doctor's daughter. Meanwhile, Prince Jai, the faithful son, grows worried over the Empress' health and her obsession with golden chrysanthemums.
Before Hero I had never heard of Zhang Yimou. After Hero I could barely read anything to do with martial arts films and not read the name Zhang Yimou. The film certainly grabbed my attention and all of a sudden there was a new director who I was very keen on seeing more films from. I waited, and with great excitement I saw House Of The Flying Dagger. A fantastic film name, but not quite as good a film. Still, it had some great moments in it, and the fighting was very good, but the drama let it down. Now it was Curse Of The Golden Flower's turn to get me excited with anticipation. Chow Yun Fat was in the cast, the early signs were all positive. And in April 2007 all waiting came to an end as I finally watched the film.
Wow. I don't know what other words to use (yet) to describe my feeling as I was watching the film. Whatever expectations I had set in my head on how this film was going to be, the viewing was hitting completely different levels. Unfortunately those levels were so low and so unexpected from the film, I felt completely awestruck. It has been a long time since I'd seen such a glammed up piece of crap like Curse Of The Golden Flower. Has Zhang Yimou let the praise and acclaim of his previous two films go to his head, and that's why he decided to make such a vanity piece as this? Maybe. One thing for sure though, I will not be excited, or really bat an eye lid, at future Zhang Yimou films. Or at least I'll try not to. For me, Curse Of The Golden Flower really is that bad.
While the film itself is crap, there are still areas, well maybe only an area, worthy of praise, and that is in the set design. The film does come across as a bit of a vanity piece, and that is simply because it does look absolutely stunning for the most part. The colours are incredibly bright and the sets a technicolour madness. It looks rich, it looks flamboyant, and it looks like it is where 99% of the film's money was spent. At times the colours are just too much though, as they started to make me feel like I was on a weird hippy trip. God knows what pills I'd taken, but I wouldn't want them in a hurry again - the colours, man, made my head hurt. Too much indulgence in colour aside, my respect is definitely there for the creators of the set and costumes, as each and every bit did look a million dollars.
My praise, given out deservedly, has to stop there, as there is little else left of merit worthy for it. One misleading expectation I was given both from the film's trailer and from the subject matter of Zhang's previous two films, was that this was going to be another wuxia film. While I have heard it being classed as Zhang's third entry into that genre, even in the extras on this DVD, in my opinion it is not a wuxia film. There are very few fight scenes to speak of, and most of the film is drama based. Everything being crap is one thing, but the film could still have been good in my books if it had wuxia to the standard of Hero or maybe even House Of The Flying Daggers. What little there is, is not. But it started so promisingly. In one of Chow Yun Fat's opening scenes we see him fight his son Prince Jai (Jay Chou). There's an abundance of slow-mo here, but the whole thing is very stylishly shot and for what it is, it is quite satisfying. Opening fights are never near the standard of what's to come in the rest of the film, so I was definitely satisfied here. But how I was let down as the film went on. It didn't get better. There is very little martial arts in the rest of the film, and what there is isn't overly spectacular. What Zhang Yimou clearly thought would raise the stakes was making the battles bigger and bigger. It is as if he was trying to show that China can also do the huge battles like in Lord Of The Rings, Troy and Chronicles Of Narnia. Those big battles looked, and were, good. The big battles in Curse Of The Golden Flower don't look that good, as too much of it looks too computer graphicy. I know it is CG, but you don't want it to look like it is. The actual battles aren't exciting either. No atmosphere, little tension and no excitement. The big set piece, the climatic rebellion battle, the event the film was shaping itself up for, and it failed to deliver in monumental proportions. There are also a couple of minor skirmishes involving the Emperor's own guards/assassins, they tingle the entertainment buds briefly but again failed to set my world on fire, or create much of a spark.
So this isn't a wuxia film, itís a drama. Anti-climatic sub-par battles and fights won't kill the film if the drama elements deliver. They don't. To get good drama elements there are some things you really need. A good story is a decent place to start. The story basis for the film is pretty good, an Empress rebelling against the Emperor, that's definitely intriguing. But the detailed plot must also be good, and again it is not. Boredom set in fairly early on, which can also be attributed to poor pacing as anything else. Also needed are good, sympathetical, emotional characters. The viewer needs to be able to connect or feel something for the characters to care about the goings on in the film. There wasn't a single character in Curse Of The Golden Flower that I could give two s**ts about. With about an hour left I just wished they'd all get killed so that the film would end sooner. There was no sympathy, no empathy, no emotion, no caring for the characters, they were just carrying on with their plot line, reaching some twists and turns and continuing all the more. I honestly think not only did the sets and costumes suck all the money out of the film, they also sucked all the life out of the characters.
It isn't often that I get to see such an over ambitious piece of glamorised poo these days. Zhang Yimou's international success with his previous two films has put him in a great position as far as being able to make what he wants, but I think there has possibly been too much jumping on his bandwagon and it has gone to his head, which is the only reason I can think he managed to get away with making this. It may smell of the freshest of roses and be jewel laden to the hilt, on the inside it is still a turd.
Special mention must go to Gong Li's (and every other female in the film's) cleavage though. While I'd never noticed it to such an extent before, it will definitely be my only good long lasting memory of Curse Of The Golden Flower. Maybe cleavage was being used as another distraction from how poor the rest of the film was. It almost got me, but I still managed to see.
Audio & Subtitles
I watched the film in DTS mode. The surrounds were used extensively and effectively throughout the film. The thumping of drums in the musical score and the sounds of battle are spread around the sound stage engaging the viewer a little more into the action. Volume levels are consistent. Definitely a good sound track.
The subtitles are of as equally as high a quality. Near perfect English subtitle tracks are now becoming far more frequent than they used to be, especially with bigger films such as this. I was not aware of any spelling or grammar errors during the film's duration.
With a film like Curse Of The Golden Flower that has put so much emphasis on its look, a good picture quality is an absolute must and we are not let down. Colours are beyond vibrant, looking majestic at all times, if a little too close to psychedelic on some occasions. Detail is sharp and contrast is perfect. There is no colour bleeding at all to ruin the film's look and no dirt, blemishes or grain to the film print was evident during my viewing. A very good transfer.
DVD & Extras
This release comes with an outer slipcase. There are only a few items for extras, most of which are pretty standard - a photo gallery, cast and crew filmographies and two theatrical trailers. The main extra is a documentary entitled "Secrets Within". This is a largely English language documentary, with the voice-over in English and interviews with cast and crew in English and Chinese. There are option English subtitles available. The documentary is split into several sections looking at various aspects of the film's making. It is quite interesting to watch and adds a bit of depth that is otherwise missing in the film. It clocks in at about 22 minutes in length.
I can possibly best summarise Curse Of The Golden Flower with this analogy. It is like the David and Victoria Beckham of the film world. Lots of money has been thrown at it and it looks a million dollars, but there is no depth, intelligence or likeable characters to speak of. It gets 0.5 for the sets and costumes and another 0.5 for the little action and cleavage.