Georgie, I, and two friends went out to see the new film by Zhang Ximou ("Hero," "House of Flying Daggers,") and it was well worth having to pick our way through the snow to get home.
The settings and costumes are intentionally opulent and gorgeous, the better to contrast with the ugliness and rot running through the character of the people involved. The story is set in the Late T'ang Dynasty period (936 AD), and the plot somewhat resembles that of "The Lion in Winter." We have an aging but still formidable Emperor (Hong Kong action film god Chow Youn Fat), a stong-willed Empress (queen of Chinese drama Gong Li) and three sons of varying levels of ambition and ability (Liu Ye, Jay Chou, Qin Junjie), either of whom the Emperor might chose as his sucessor. However, that's where the resemblance ends. In "Lion" Henry and Eleanor spar openly, argue vigorously, and scheme with a perverse pleasure, and the story ends with a rather bloody-minded optimism that things might yet work out for the best. The dynamics in "Curse of the Golden Flower" are quite different. The Emperor's rule is so absolute that he cannot be openly defied in even the smallest thing. Rigid requirements of courtesy and decorum forbid anyone to admit that anything may be wrong, so discontents must fester in secrecy. Both discontents and secrets are rife, as we quickly learn that Empress Phoenix has been conducting an affair with her stepson, Wan, the current Crown Prince (Liu Ye), and that Emperor Ping is conspiring with the Imperial Doctor to bring about the Empress' death by means of a slow and hideous poison--and things go downhill from there as plots, counterplots, and revenges layer on one another until the foundation of lies finally, and catastrophically, collapses.
The film is chiefly a vehicle for Chow Youn Fat, the ruthless Emperor, and Gong Li, the desperate Empress, as the two major players. Chow Youn Fat is following in the footsteps of James Mason and Sean Connery, maturing from an action hero to a powerful chracter actor; however, the script mainly calls for him to be formidable and inscrutable, which he does well. When he does finally unleash his rage, he is terrifying. Gong Li is given a wider licence to chew the beautiful scenery, and gives it her all, ranging from sensuality, to illness, to despair, to madness. They are ably supported by the three young men as the mostly bewildered sons, and Ni Dahong, Chen Jin, and Li Man as the Imperial Doctor, his wife, and daughter who are caught up in the machinations. There is also a cast of what seems like thousands of courtiers, servants, and soldiers who recreate the often stifling and regimented life of the Imperial Palace.
The ultimate resolution kept us surprised until the end, and I won't give away more than I have. Highly recommended for adults only, due to the extreme emotional and physical violence. In Mandarin, with English subtitles.