Chow Yun Fat
Fans of Zhang Yimou’s earlier ‘art-fu’ outings Hero (2003) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) will not be surprised that his latest, Curse of the Golden Flower, is a period film wrapped in immaculately colour-coded design and heavily stylised set-pieces.
Yet where his previous forays into the wuxia genre were opulently aestheticised tales of romance and heroism, here cynicism is key, and all the visual opulence itself forms an integral part of the story’s ironies, in a film concerned as much with hidden cracks and flaws as with the glossy surfaces that so attractively conceal them. As the title suggests, even the most beautiful objects can harbour ruin, and for all its wealth, power and pageantry, the tenth-century Imperial family at the centre of Curse of the Golden Flower is a hotbed of corruption, jealousy, hypocrisy, ambition, incest, conspiracy and murderous intent – all of which will come into full bloom in the lead-up to the annual Chrysanthemum Festival.
It is 928 AD, in the Later Tang Dynasty, and the Imperial family is gathering to celebrate the Chong Yang Festival together. Yet behind all the courtly etiquette and formality, there is trouble brewing. As ruthless as he is calculating, the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) is determined to maintain control over his household at all costs, and has taken an unusually personal interest in the medicinal regime of his ailing wife (Gong Li).
For some years the Empress has been conducting a passionate, if illicit, affair with her own stepson, the Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), and her current obsession with embroidery is hardly a sign of wifely propriety. Meanwhile Wan longs to elope with Chan (Li Man), the beautiful daughter of the Imperial Doctor (Ni Dahong), not realising that both her father and her mother (Chen Jin) protect secrets that could bring down the whole Imperial family. As the Emperor’s youngest son Yu (Qin Junjie) watches from the sidelines, deadly plots begin to take shape, and the middle son Jai (Jay Chou), recently returned from war, must decide with which of his parents his true allegiances lie.
Adapted from the play ‘Lei Yu’ (or ‘Thunderstorm’), written by Yu Cao in the thirties and previously filmed in 1957 (with Bruce Lee in a forgotten dramatic role) and again in 1961, Curse of the Golden Flower may at times bubble up into a hysterical kind of melodrama that borders on camp, but it is essentially a family tragedy (complete with subplots that evoke Oedipus and Hippolytus), and in keeping with the traditions of that genre, its domestic themes are never far from the arena of politics.
Yimou’s fictionalised Imperial family bears more than a passing genetic resemblance to China’s current leadership – living in privileged luxury, removed from the people, constantly embroiled in scheming and power games, paying only hypocritical lip-service to past values that they have long since abandoned, and (most strikingly of all) sweeping under the carpet all evidence of a massacre recently perpetrated in an Imperial square. And here, as in today’s China, any sign of rebellion or resistance is mercilessly crushed by a tyrannical patriarchy for whom keeping up appearances is everything. It would seem that the internecine curse in Yimou’s film still extends its bloody grip on the power lites of present-day China.
With his floral extravaganzas, airborne assassinations and ritualised grandeur, Yimou once again deploys the innate attractions of genre and the particular appeal of his exquisite production values as the rich fabric into which all manner of political polemic can be woven. For the combination of lurid colours and scandalous subplots makes this the sweetest of eye candy with the bitterest of after-tastes, as though to suggest that, despite the stately perfection of its appearance, there is something very poisonous in the state of China.