Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat star in Curse of the Golden Flower, the latest visual feast from director Yumou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). A much-less action-packed entry than his previous American releases, Golden Flower is a darker, more personal drama that still boasts incredible visuals and set design while offering a rather f**ked up story of betrayal, deceit and rebellion.
Golden Flower follows the sickly Empress Phoenix (Gong Li), who has been suffering from anemia for years. Cooped up in her palace with her three sons, she fights to maintain stability upon her life. When her husband, the Emperor Ping (Yun-Fat), arrives for a brief stay, however, she realizes that her future is at a crossroads. The medicine that her husband has been making her for years is actually destroying her brain - the Emperor is slowly trying to poison and kill his wife. As the sons slowly discover what is going on, they become enrolled in a quarrel between their two parents. But domestic disputes such as these cannot end well for a royal family, and things certainly do not in Golden Flower.
Gong Li is tremendous in the lead role, as she brings overwhelming power and intensity to a character who would often not receive much attention at all. Then again, Yun-Fat, in a shockingly dark (and smaller) role, has created the perfect gray character, a man who perhaps loves his family but who is rooted in tradition. His dark motives are never really made clear, but that almost makes his character even better, as you never know what he's really thinking. His calm demeanor throughout the film, and the fact that he appears heavier and hairier than in other roles, adds to the uniqueness of the character for Yun-Fat. The rest of the supporting cast also do a good job.
As for the movie itself, Golden Flower is a strong but not sensational film. Visually, Golden Flower is wonderful, despite the fact that the movie lacks a lot of the special effects and artistic flare that Yimou normally fills his movies with. The set design is incredible, and there is rarely a scene where the screen is not glowing with bright, rich colors, but the film certainly has a lot less spectacle to it - and in my opinion, the visuals in Hero and House of Flying Daggers were both the movies' greatest strength and weakness. While I have liked Yimou's movies, I have always felt that they went a little overkill on the artsy visuals, and Golden Flower is a lot more "down to earth." This time around, it seems as though Yimou decided to focus less on the graphics and more on the characters, of which there are plenty and who all need to be developed properly to make the movie work.
Visuals aside, the movie works well on a dramatic level. As my chiropractor pointed out, Golden Flower isn't as deep or meaningful as some of Yimou's other movies, but I'm okay with that. This movie is less about a message than about the drama within a very powerful family, and I like the simplicity of it all. There's not a single character who doesn't betray another, or who doesn't make a mistake, or who doesn't plot to kill someone else. That's pretty damn cool.
Of course, those looking for an action-packed flick along the lines of Hero should look elsewhere. Golden Flower does have a few well-done fight sequences, but the movie is definitely more about the characters than about action. That being said, if you are a fidgety audience member and can manage to sit through the first two acts, the third and final act has a tremendous pay-off. Curse of the Golden Flower ends with action, murder, betrayal and plenty of shocking "twists". The movie is certainly more disturbing than I was expecting it to be.
Curse of the Golden Flower is not without its flaws - it's a bit slow in parts and it doesn't grab the attention in the same way as Yimou's other movies - but it has a tremendous ending and an intriguing story. Great acting and directing also help. Recommended for fans of the genre.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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