Friday, February 26, 2010


Zhang Yimou's dynastic drama comes into my hands via my friend and frequent correspondent Crhymethinc, who found a cheap copy recently. His qualified recommendation convinced me to finally watch a film I'd been avoiding for a while. I'd gotten tired of overproduced Chinese epics after Zhang's House of Flying Daggers, but it'd been years now since I'd seen one.

Crhymethinc's description of the story made it sound like a Chinese version of The Lion in Winter. The basics are there: a monarch and his estranged wife; three ambitious sons of varying intelligence; intrigue aplenty. And for half the picture Golden Flower plays out that way as the family gathers for the annual Chrysanthemum (i.e. "golden flower") Festival. But while Lion is ultimately a comedy in which everyone stops short of family feud or civil war, Golden Flower plays its hand to the tragic hilt. Crhymethinc's own word for it was "Shakespearean," and that's a fair assessment.

The Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) is slowly poisoning his wife (Gong Li) by adding a helping of Persian black fungus to her hourly medicine. He isn't out to kill her, as far as we can tell, but his object seems to be to make her a "cretin." This may be so she won't plot against him. Their was an arranged and quite possibly loveless marriage that lent legitimacy to a usurper, the Empress being an authentic princess. She seems closer to her sons than her husband, and is shown disputing the eldest prince's guilty protest against an incestuous relationship. It isn't really incest, she says, and she knows whereof she speaks. Elder Brother has stronger feelings for the daughter of the court physician, the very woman who brings the Empress her toxic dosage on the hour. Middle Brother, a more militant type, is also close to Mom. When he learns about Dad's poison plot, he plans an uprising to force the Emperor from his throne. Meanwhile, Younger Brother is the Prince John of the trio, a bit dull but just as ambitious, and envious to boot. The Emperor cruises above it all, an annoying know-it-all who lectures everyone on the importance of rituals and the necessity of taking one's medicine regularly. You soon find yourself rooting for him to get his comeuppance.

So far, so good for the first half. The second half, however, is like The Lion in Winter if it had been directed by Cecil B. De Mille, remade by Peter Jackson, and turned into a video game that was then adapted into a Zhang Yimou movie. The moment the Emperor's black-clad, black-masked army of assassins swoops down upon the court physician's household, it becomes a challenge to take the story seriously. Zhang simply doesn't know when to quit. There is no narrative problem that he can't answer with "more!" You can keep track of the tragic threads of the story, such as the revelation of a real incestuous romance and Younger Brother's temper tantrum in the guise of a half-assed coup d'etat, but all the epic exertions of Chow, Gong and their supporting cast are overwhelmed by Zhang's endless, overchoreographed battle scenes. After a while it begins to look like Zhang is intercutting between a genuine Shakespearean tragedy and an extremely well-detailed Playstation adventure.

Zhang's excess doesn't really dilute the film's tragic power, however, as long as we mean tragic in the modern sense of something deeply demoralizing. Curse of the Golden Flower left me wondering what Chinese audiences, not to mention the Chinese government, made of this film. Did they infer any analogy with the modern-day state in the movie's portrayal of an evil ruler and a dubious ruling family? If so, the government, at least, may have been satisfied with a climax that emphasizes the ruler's ruthless omnipotence. If this film has a moral, it's probably along the lines of "Don't mess with the state," or "Resistance is futile." It reminded me of what I disliked about Zhang's Hero: its argument that tyranny may be unpleasant, yet may be necessary to unite all under heaven. Golden Flower at least doesn't dare say that the Emperor's triumph is for the best, but it expresses a similar pessimism about rebellion that rubs against the American grain. It may be more realistic than an imagined American attempt to tell the same story, but there's something mean spirited to it that's only augmented by the nearly pornographic glee with which Zhang piles army on top of army while portraying the extermination of the rebellion.

If you can watch Golden Flower without thinking about it politically, you can probably lose yourself in the lavish cinematography and art direction. It's often a beautiful film, even in the too-elaborately composed battle scenes, but it always threatens to grow monotonous and vulgar in its richness. That's the De Mille part of the equation, along with the heralds always announcing the arrivals of royal persons and the universal endowment of female characters with ample cleavage. Maybe it's an authentic fashion of the period (though Wikipedia tells me that the film isn't as precise about its time period as the English subtitles claim) but somehow Zhang films it so it doesn't look that way. Feel free to ogle, though, or thrill to the spectacle of thousands clashing in combat. There's a lot here for different tastes to enjoy, but I question whether anyone can enjoy it all equally.

Here's a trailer uploaded to YouTube by YojimboADK:


dfordoom said...

I have a copy of that one, recorded from cable. Must get around to watching it. I liked Hero. The politics was a little unsettling, but it made a change from the usual political slant of movies. It was fascinating if nothing else to come across a reasoned defense of tyranny!

Anonymous said...

I think for me, the draw of Chinese martial arts films has always been the one-on-one or small scale combat. Once you get into the realm of army-on-army, I think the western directors seem to have a better grasp of filming such scenes. It just seems that the Chinese directors take an almost ballet approach, whereas the westerners make a pitched battle look like utter chaos. Which, I imagine, is closer to reality. But then, for my money, it will take a lot to out do Peter Jackson's memorable battle scenes (in CGI) from his LotR trilogy.

Samuel Wilson said...

dfordoom: I liked Hero overall despite the political overtones, and I suppose the different (cultural?) point of view is actually another point of interest. Golden Flower is definitely less political except by inference, and I might not think it political at all except for its Chinese pedigree.

Crhymethinc: There's definitely a synchronized quality to the Golden Flower battles that suffers alongside the mayhem of western battle scenes. There's also an anonymity to the soldiers; you really only see Prince Jai involved in one-on-one combat, and otherwise his men are just fodder. But my real objection to the Golden Flower battle scenes is the way they swamp the personal drama of the Emperor's family; it's like having large-scale battles in Hamlet. Kenneth Branagh did something like that in his film and it didn't really help the play.