A pageantry of pageantry that would put Bertolucci or Lean to shame, Zhang Yimou's The Curse of the Golden Flower piles spectacle upon spectacle, and tragedy on top of tragedy, until the whole contraption fairly disintegrates under the fervid weight of it all. Normally this wouldn't really be an issue, as late period Yimou films like House of Flying Daggers and Hero have been perfectly acceptable as period-piece baubles, rife with dynamic wuxia action sequences and dashing costumes -- things that Golden Flower has in abundance. While packed with emotion, those earlier films could certainly be enjoyed on surface detail alone, but there was still some heft to them; one doesn't buy for a second that Zhang Ziyi could fight like that without some help from gravity-defying wires, but the films were still able to dance that line between escapism and drama without leaving either behind. But Golden Flower can't dance.
Set in a royal court during the 10th century Tang dynasty, Golden Flower starts in and spends most of its time inside those same palace walls; which at first doesn't seem like a bad place to be. The place is a bejeweled rainbow of color, splashed with sunlight that sparkles off the golds, reds, and greens, and the camera greedily prowls its corridors looking for fresh spectacle. Yimou starts off with a feverishly choreographed ballet of servitude as hundreds of courtiers ready themselves in synchronized grace for the arrival of the long-traveling Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat, regally villainous). His three princes await him, each curious about how and if he is going to divide up power between them, as his health seems to be in decline.
The Empress Phoenix (Yimou's onetime muse Gong Li) doesn't seem exactly desiring of Ping's return, sick as she has been for years, drinking an elaborately prepared concoction every two hours -- the ritualized presentation and drinking of which is such that it would have made Marie Antoinette's servers blanch in embarrassment. Unbeknownst to Phoenix, Ping has recently instructed his head doctor to have his servant daughter add a dash of black fungus to the medicine, something that will apparently cause madness within a matter of months. Phoenix already appears quite in decline, her hands wracked by tremors, and face a near-constant mask of gorgeous porcelain-skinned agony. Adding to her worries are the fact that she's been sleeping with one of the princes (the one who was born to Ping's deceased first wife) and that there may be a palace coup in the wind, perhaps happening during the upcoming Chrysanthemum Festival (not surprisingly, Yimou's centerpiece for the film just so happens to be an event that allows him to flood the screen with thousands of brightly blooming flowers).
Yimou's greatest mistake with Golden Flower is to allow his natural impulse towards regal spectacle to overwhelm practically every other element of the story. After an energetic start, the first half of the film drags perilously and stiffly from one declamatory scene to the next, and with hardly any action to be seen. Left adrift without the zippy fight sequences of Yimou's other wuxia, the performers still perform their scenes of passion and betrayal in a state of constant high anxiety that verge into camp more than once.
By the time that Yimou stages the film's first great action scene -- a nighttime assault by a squadron of scythe-wielding masked assassins who flutter down from high cliffs on spiderweb-like ropes -- it's too late, the damage has already been done. Which is a shame, as Golden Flower takes some impressively unexpected turns near the end. Amidst a bloody cacophony of combat, the films takes a more philosophic than pulse-pounding approach, highlighting warfare's deadening horror instead of its thrills. Also unlike many costume dramas of its ilk, Golden Flower maintains a welcome cynicism about power; it becomes clear that all the luxuriously maintained rituals would go on unabated no matter who is in power, and regardless of their wisdom or cruelty.
Aka Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia.