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Curse of the Golden Flower

Zhang Yimou, 2006

Zhang Yimou has made something of a splash with Western audiences in recent years: first (and best of the three, in my opinion) with the politically controversial Hero in 2002, starring Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung; then two years later, the romantic House of Flying Daggers, with Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau; and now, less successfully by most accounts, with the extravagant Curse of the Golden Flower, featuring Chow Yun-Fat, the charismatic star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and many a Hong Kong gangster film, and the radiant Gong Li, Zhang Yimou's discovery twenty years ago when they made their first six feature films together.

All three films continue to exemplify Zhang’s fascination with color schemes, and all of them involve secrets – secrets between the characters as well as from the audience. While the action of Hero is extroverted, the motivations and true intentions of its characters are kept covert; there is even a kind of Rashomon-like quality to the narrative. The intimate secrets of House of Flying Daggers are kept from the audience to the point that we, along with its protagonist, may feel we have been tricked. Curse of the Golden Flower, obsessed with the discrepancy between opulence and loneliness, is layered with secret plots – plots to poison, to overthrow, to love.

While all three films have a love story of one sort or other at their core, there exists also a conflict of obligations - a common theme in Asian stories from Chushingura to A Better Tomorrow. In Curse, the love stories, such as they are, are subverted, infected and distorted by conflicts of loyalty to the point that love is not really possible, only the manipulation of others to insidious and malicious ends. It is here that the film reveals its most exquisite dramatic textures – all in the context of blinding color and opulence: the brilliance of the gold and glass blinds and binds everyone to their fates, which are, for each of them, inescapable. To the extent that Curse has a weakness, it may lie in our lack of interest in these love stories for lack of development, even if consistent with character.

 


Curse of the Golden Flower invites comparisons, not only to Zhang's two previous films, largely because of his use of color and their spectacular set pieces, but to Shakespeare, most obviously King Lear. The motivations of the three sons, however, are rather different, as is the king's, and are complicated by maternal loyalty, or incest, or both. And Emperor Ping, of course, is anything but feeble. Have no doubts, however, about the level of carnage by the movie's end. Were Richard III, Macbeth or Lear any less?

Whether you warm to its intrigues may depend on how well you can accept Curse of the Golden Flower as grand opera or, at least, grand soap - told with a dedication to visual detail reminiscent of von Sternberg's Scarlet Empress. The lavish sets make the discrepancy between opulence and rottenness all the more fated – an essay on the corrupting influence of absolute power. Curiously, while each character seems to have absolute power - within the bounds of their fief – they do not appear to have choice. Whether they be cooks or princes, doctors or generals, they accept neither their place nor their limitations, which is what makes their story, our story.

As with
Hero and House, the acting talent is top drawer, especially Gong Li, who alternates disdain, shame, disgust and seething passion in a walking disaster waiting to explode – a tour de force of controlled emotion that makes her omission from the list of last year’s nominees as surprising as it was regrettable. The final set piece with its rows of disciplined soldiers, extending, it seems, to infinity, reminiscent of the attack on the Caligraphy School in Hero, is truly jaw dropping. We can’t help wonder if these are real people or CG simulations. The effect is as seamless as it is brilliant in execution. The entire production design, as with Hero and House: the sets, makeup and costumes, and use of color is something to write home about. In contrast to Hero and House, one color predominates in Curse of the Golden Flower: Gold. And, in strong contrast to House, Curse is photographed mostly in deep focus with a clarity that boggles the eye. The images are in artful exercises in precision, even at night: the exteriors, rich with saturated color; the interiors glowing with dazzling, overpowering brilliance. It is no wonder that all who enter the palace are obsessed to the point of madness, living in such a blinding, claustrophobic environment.
 


The Score Card
The Movie : 7.5~8.0
The fictional events take place in the prosperous Tang Dynasty over one thousand years ago. The emperor has three sons, the two younger ones by the present empress; the eldest by her predecessor before he became emperor. The eldest, we learn from the outset has been intimate with his stepmother for three years, during which time his next younger brother has been away and is now returning in time for the Chrysanthemum Festival, which will figure prominently at every possible layer of meaning and plot. (By the way, it must be that all the titles were already taken, for while the golden flower figures into the story, the notion of a "curse" does not. This is, after all, not a Boris Karloff horror movie. "Fate" would have been a better word.) The eldest son is weak and explicit about his lack of interest in assuming the throne at the appropriate time. The middle son is evidently the most loyal and most competent. The youngest lurks in the background. He is attentive, but we are unclear about his intentions. The empress has been very sick for days. She is commanded to take a medicine designed by the king. It is not difficult to suspect foul play. All this in the first 15 minutes. The rest of the movie plays out the inevitable drama – and it’s a killer.

Image : 9.0
In my travels among BD discs, I have yet to see a film that shows off the advantage of Blu-ray over a good standard definition presentation as well as this one. It appears to be transferred from the same high definition master that produced Sony's Region-1 SD release of
Curse of the Golden Flower, which I would have given about a 6.0 score at best. But the Blu-ray is another matter entirely. I saw this movie theatrically and was unimpressed by the image. The garish color and the brilliance of its intensity seemed to overwhelm the projector’s ability to make any sense of it. I had hopes for the SD DVD, and indeed Sony's R1 was an improvement in terms of contrast control; but the detail and resolution necessary to keep our attention from wandering was still missing. The problem with the SD, or any 480p attempt at this movie, is that there is simply too much fine detail, especially in the background, for it to get a proper handle on. Shown in full 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the textured costumes, the palatial ornamentation, and especially the illumination that exudes from the walls in reds, purples and yellows positively bursting with energy, is in control and evident only in high definition. Our eye can scan any surface at its leisure and take in the full impact, or we can relax in confidence and give ourselves up to the image. There is only a fine sense of grain that can be seen most of the time, but it never imposes itself. I can imagine that a properly duped and projected film would have done a slightly better job, but I certainly wasn’t privy to such, nor can we really know what was on the final film before it was presented for HD mastering or theatrical duplication. What higher praise than that this Blu-ray DVD is better than the theatrical presentation!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Empathy : 9
Because the image is so immaculately and deliciously manifest, we are free to experience the drama without concern or critique. That said, we can’t help but be impressed by the magnificence of Zhang’s conception and the dedication his team had in realizing that intent. Some will no doubt feel that the technique overpowers the drama, and it might take a few viewings to place the visuals in perspective.

Audio & Music : 9/7
Mostly, fabulous. On 2-channel PCM mixdown, the music, sound effects were clear, with plenty of bass and impact. The various effects, precise and telling. The dialog in classic Mandarin was articulated with the necessary finesse, even when other sounds were in the foreground. I read many complaints that this was a noisy movie, so I decided to play the audio while I tinkered elsewhere about the house. Contrary to an oft-held opinion, the movie contains a number of long, delicate, nearly silent passages. It's pretty much only in the last scenes that Zhang pumps up the whomp and clatter. I thought the music score started off well, but devolved into unimaginative cliché at times when the armies attacked the palace. And, since we are naturally affected by the last thing we see and hear in a movie, what could have possessed the American distributor of this film to retain a mood-disrupting and (to this ear) utterly inappropriate Chinese pop song (which, in a different context, would be quite pleasant) as the exit music over the final credits.

Operations : 8
The Main Menu can be accessed quickly enough after loading by pressing "next chapter" after the blu-ray promo begins. There are only 16 chapters with thumbnails that suggest the scene well enough, except that there is no thumbnail to indicate the attack on the doctor's camp outside the castle, a curious oversight. Subtitles are in white, though in this case, I think I would have preferred yellow. Since white is not a part of the color scheme, white is a bit jarring. On the other hand, the dialog is placed below the frame where possible, so it's not always intrusive. One other oddity: The main menu is first announced (but not on successive attempts during play) by a pair of sliding doors which two silhouetted figures open from behind. (The SD edition goes directly to a figurative panel within which are seen dramatic scenes from the movie.) While, at first blush, the sliding panels idea seems clever, I thought it is not especially Chinese as much as it is Japanese; at any rate, there are no such scenes in the movie. In fact, one of the most elegant things about the set design is how various chambers are created by raising and lowering translucent blinds.

Extras : 7
The principal Extra is a self-promoting and generally repetitive 22 minute 480p letterboxed thing titled "Secrets Within," from which we gather that “every effort was made to get the details of the period correct.” How they know this I haven’t a clue but I’m happy to accept the movie as a cinematic rendering of what Tang splendor may have looked like or as complete fiction. Matters not.
 

 


Leonard Norwitz
LensViews
July 1st, 2007


COMING SOON:
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Curse of the Golden Flower
The Searchers
The Queen
Unforgiven
Casino Royale
Enter the Dragon
Kung-Fu Hustle
Rocky
Reds

 

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