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Chow Yun-Fat as Emperor Ping
Gong Li as Empress Phoenix
Jay Chou as Prince Jai
Liu Ye as Crown Prince Wan
Ni Dahong as Imperial Doctor
Chen Jin as Imperial Doctor's Wife
Li Man as Jiang Chan
Qin Junjie as Prince Yu
Directed by Zhang Yimou
A bit slower than "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" but still quite astounding to watch the scope of Zhang Yimou's vision in creating such complex characters, then having them battle in stunning fight sequences.
In China 928 AD during the Tang Dynasty, the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) has returned home from war to his wife, the Empress (Gong LI), but when she learns that he's been poisoning the medicine she must take on an hourly basis, she plots to overthrow him, beginning a war that will tear their family apart on the eve of the annual Chrysanthenum Festival.
For his third historic martial arts film, director Zhang Yimou ("Hero," "House of Flying Dagger") reunites with long-time muse and former girlfriend Gong Li for the first time in ten years, making "Curse of the Golden Flower" a far more dramatic affair.
While love triangles have been the driving force of Zhang's last two martial arts films, "Curse" is more of a dysfunctional family drama set in China's 10th Century. Based on a well-known Chinese play, the complex relationship between its five or six main characters could very well have been inspired by "Macbeth," even including an Oedipal relationship between the Empress and her stepson Wan (Liu Ye) while her husband was off at war. In turn, Wan has been fooling around with the Empress' servant, the daughter of the royal pharmacist. If things weren't complicated enough, a mysterious masked woman in black shows up to tell the incensed Empress how that pharmacist and his daughter have been poisoning her medicine at her husband's behest. With this new revelation, the pharmacist and his family are exiled from the palace--disguised as a promotion--and the enraged Empress plots a coup to dethrone her overbearing husband, causing a full-scale war amongst their family as sides are chosen.
There are certain expectations when it comes to Mr. Zhang's martial arts films, and as the third movie of this ilk, "Curse of the Golden Flower" is more impressive than "House of Flying Daggers" at least in the size and scope of the film, being much closer to "Hero." Like "Hero," it also deals more with royalty, and the traditional rituals and protocol at the royal household, as well as being a more complex plot involving the layered relationships between the characters. Mr. Zhang's production team, most of whom worked on "House," certainly have outdone themselves as far as the costumes and production design, most of the story taking place inside the Emperor's gold-tinged palace with a vast courtyard filled from end-to-end with pots of chrysanthemums for the upcoming festival.
Once again, the unbelievable martial arts and battle scenes that Mr. Zhang concocts with regular collaborator Tony Ching Siu-Tung are jaw-dropping. After an early sword fight between Chow Yun-Fat's Emperor and his second eldest son Prince Jai, played by pop singer Jay Chou, things settle down into a slower dialogue-driven pace focusing on the dramatic encounters, and it's almost an hour before the martial arts rear their head again. When they do, the action builds with each extravagant scene leading to the last 40 minutes of almost non-stop action. As impressive as it is to see the aerobatic martial arts, nothing can prepare you for the bloody epic battle that climaxes the film as seemingly thousands of soldiers converge on the castle. Every time you think this amazing sequence has reached its peak, Zhang unleashes another thousand soldiers as if to say, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!" It's a sequence worthy of bragging about done with very little CGI. Western directors will want to take note of what they're able to achieve at a fraction of the cost of similar Hollywood epics. Even more amazing is that after the vast destruction with bloody bodies everywhere, the palace servants are able to clean it all up and put things back to the way they were, just in time for one last family dinner.
Since "Curse" is as much driven by the characters as Mr. Zhang's other films, Gong Li's return is a welcome one, as she gloriously carries the film and holds things together as some of her less experienced co-stars get a bit overly melodramatic with their own performances. That said, there isn't a living Chinese actor who could play the Emperor better than Chow Yun-Fat. Far from the benevolent husband and family man we might expect, Chow turns the rule into a rich character whose motivations are rarely clear, but he rarely needs to say a word to get himself across. The scenes between Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat are so spectacular that some might be disappointed that they don't have nearly as much screen time together as one might hope. The two veterans really stand out among a cast that otherwise isn't as strong as Zhang's last few films. (The only other minor quibble is that "Curse" lacks the artistic vision of cinematographer Christopher Doyle who gave "Hero" such a beautiful and distinct look.)
The Bottom Line:
Another fascinating glimpse into Chinese history, this complex character-driven story is filled with action that raises the ante even from Zhang Yimou's previous films. Only slightly marred by its slow pace and less-experienced actors, "Curse of the Golden Flower" is another glorious spectacle where Zhang finds new ways to leave you stunned and amazed with every passing frame. Fans of Chinese film will also want to rejoice the welcome reunion of Zhang Yimou with Gong Li after far too many years.
Curse of the Golden Flower opens today in New York City and tomorrow in other select cities.