Today PJ and I saw Curse of the Golden Flower, the latest film from Zhang Yimou, the director of House of Flying Daggers, one of my favorite movies. It stars Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li as the emperor and empress of China. Here’s the plot summary from IMDb:

China, Later Tang Dynasty, 10th Century. On the eve of the Chong Yang Festival, golden flowers fill the Imperial Palace. The Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) returns unexpectedly with his second son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou). His pretext is to celebrate the holiday with his family, but given the chilled relations between the Emperor and the ailing Empress (Gong Li), this seems disingenuous. For many years, the Empress and Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), her stepson, have had an illicit liaison. Feeling trapped, Prince Wan dreams of escaping the palace with his secret love Chan (Li Man), the Imperial Doctor’s daughter. Meanwhile, Prince Jai, the faithful son, grows worried over the Empress’s health and her obsession with golden chrysanthemums. Could she be headed down an ominous path? The Emperor harbors equally clandestine plans; the Imperial Doctor (Ni Dahong) is the only one privy to his machinations. When the Emperor senses a looming threat, he relocates the doctor’s family from the Palace to a remote area. While they are en route, mysterious assassins attack them. Chan and her mother, Jiang Shi (Chen Jin) are forced back to the palace. Their return sets off a tumultuous sequence of dark surprises. Amid the glamour and grandeur of the festival, ugly secrets are revealed. As the Imperial Family continues its elaborate charade in a palatial setting, thousands of golden armored warriors charge the palace. Who is behind this brutal rebellion? Where do Prince Jai’s loyalties lie? Between love and desire, is there a final winner? Against a moonlit night, thousands of chrysanthemum blossoms are trampled as blood spills across the Imperial Palace.

I should admit up front that I love Yimou’s movies and martial arts films set in Medieval China. Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragondirected by Ang Lee, are wonderful films. I was less impressed with Hero — ultimately it seemed too intricately plotted for its own good. Curse of the Golden Flower shares some of the stengths of these earlier movies as well as some of their weaknesses.  

Like House of Flying Daggers, this is a beautiful film. The cinematography, art direction, and costumes are all excellent. One review that I read complains that the characters spend a lot of time walking through beautiful hallways. With hallways as beautiful as these, who could resist walking through them as much as possible? I also really like Gong Li’s performance. She is amazing. Her role calls for her to alternate between vulnerability and fierce strength. She fulfills this difficult task well. By the end, hers is the side we’re most on, I think, even if we’re not sure if the film really wants us to support her cause. In many ways, this film is a cross between The Lion in Winter, King Lear, and Hamlet. And that’s my biggest complaint about it. Like Hero, this movie’s plot is more complicated than it needs to be. By the end, we’re left wondering who we were supposed to cheer for. I could see each character’s viewpoint, but I never felt that I was meant to support any one’s political machinations. Ultimately, these characters become archetypes for the struggle against patriarchy, with the emperor as the symbol of this system’s oppressive control over all of the other characters. I suppose we’re led to hope for his overthrow by the end of the film, but I’m not sure we are ever really on any of his opponents’ side, that we feel for any of the characters.

In part, this weakness is probably also due to the fact that there’s no clear love story at the core of this film. Unlike Daggers, Flower doesn’t center on a romantic plot. While there are romantic entanglements, the film doesn’t really focus on them, and I didn’t feel particularly invested in how they did or didn’t resolve themselves.

It also doesn’t include as many fighting scenes as the other films in this genre that I’ve enjoyed. This means that it also doesn’t have the amazing special effects and dazzling choreography of earlier movies. But, as the description quotes above suggests, it is bloody. Very bloody.

Overall, I enjoyed the film but it doesn’t thrill me like Crouching Tiger or Daggers. It’s a good film, but not great.