Curse of the Golden Flower is easily the most visually sumptuous film around. It’s also the most sublimely silly one. That’s not to say that it isn’t entertaining, or that it isn’t well made. It is both. It is also one of the most jaw-droppingly spectacular things you’re likely to see. It’s “art fu” filmmaking with a vengeance (and it contains enough pushed-up cleavage that it could almost qualify for inventing a new sub-genre, “jiggle fu”). But none of this overcomes the fact that the screenplay is convoluted, overheated nonsense so broadly played that the proceedings become unintentionally funny long before the ending. While that is entertaining, I seriously doubt it was meant to be entertaining in quite this way — and worse, it’s never quite entertaining enough to overcome the almost suffocating opulence of it all.
The film is constantly trying too hard to be an epic. The problem is almost immediately apparent when it opens in too grand a manner. At the beginning of the movie, the palace is all a dither over the return of the emperor (Chow Yun-Fat). Vast preparations are made and somewhere in the neighborhood of 9,000,000 extras (including the CGI variety) are amassed for the event. People are running all over the Day-Glo colored palace (I’d like to see the interior with a black light and a recording of “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida” playing). The spectacle is truly amazing, and you sense something big is about to happen. What does happen? Well, call it Emperor Interruptus, I guess, because he sends word for them to break it up, saying he’s stopping over at the “Official Inn” for the evening and will arrive later — minus the fanfare. So much for that — setup minus payoff.
Instead, the plot kicks in — and it’s a doozy. Seems the empress (Gong Li) has been having an affair with the crown prince (Liu Ye) — who is not her son — and she’s anxious it should continue. In the meantime, the crown prince has become all hot and bothered over the imperial doctor’s (Ni Dahong) daughter, Chan (Li Man), and would like nothing better than to pass the title over to second son Prince Jai (Jay Chou) and run off with the girl. In the midst of all this, it turns out that the emperor has been having the doctor add two grams of black Persian mushroom to the empress’ anemia medicine (seemingly administered every hour), because relations are not so good between the royal couple and it’s well known that two grams of black Persian mushroom taken every day for two months causes insanity. (More useful knowledge courtesy of the movies.)
This is by no means all there is to the plot, but since most of the rest of it is supposed to be surprising (even if I didn’t find it so), this is as much as it’s fair to reveal here. Suffice it to say that each convolution of the story is just a little more absurd than the last, and it will all end in tears, you may be sure. It will also all end in copious amounts of blood and spectacle that finally has some kind of payoff when the various warring factions go head to head. It’s like imitation Shakespeare or a really over-the-top Italian opera — madness, incest, plots, counter-plots, assassinations, ulterior motives ,AeP you name it, they’re all in here. The emperor even emulates that notorious moment of bad parenting attributed to Ivan the Terrible where he bludgeons an offspring to death. Wow!
The problem is that it’s just too much, and the claustrophobia of the palace interiors, where most of it takes place, is stultifying. Then there are the performances. Charitably, it could be said that these make the wildest silent film-acting techniques look positively understated. Making matters worse is the astonishing array of inexplicable and unexplained esoterica. For instance, just what is the open-seated chair the emperor likes to sit on while fumes from strange herbal brews waft up around him? The 10th century Chinese treatment for hemorrhoids? For all we’re told, it could well be — and until I hear otherwise, that’s my guess. Technically, Curse of the Golden Flower is amazing and well worth seeing, but as drama … well, that’s another matter. Rated R for violence.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke