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.
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: