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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Curse of the Golden Flower (review)

Cursed, I Tell You: Cursed

It pains me deeply to say this, but, Bwahahaha! Are they kidding with this Curse of the Golden Flower thing? Seriously, where can I get some of whatever Zhang Yimou was on when he was directing this grotesquerie of a cinematic disaster? I mean, yes to opulence, yes to passion, yes to political murder and courtly intrigue and illicit sex and all that. But no — please god no — to histrionics overblown on a nuclear scale and ludicrousness that blots out the sun and total disconnect from reality that would make even Bugs Bunny go Wha…?
You have to understand where I’m coming from when I state that Curse of the Golden Flower is one of the very worst films of 2006. To say that I adore Zhang would be an understatement along the lines of “I can tolerate chocolate if someone force feeds it to me, which they’d have to do because, bah, who needs chocolate?” His recent films — Hero and House of Flying Daggers — left me in breathless awe of their dangerous beauty, had me cowering like an unworthy supplicant at his cinematic feet in uncomprehending astonishment at how any mere mortal could transfer such transcendent splendidness to the screen. Honestly. So there is an element of, oh, massive and crushing disappointment in the discovery that one of my movie idols can, in fact, do wrong? Yes. But there are movies that are godawful because no one involved gave a shit for anything beyond making a quick buck and getting the hell out of there, and it’s easy to label them godawful because they had no chance of being anything but. And there are movies that are godawful because very talented people, people whose heads had previously seemed to be properly screwed on, took a daytrip to the land of insanity for who knows what reason, and let themselves run unchecked through poppy fields of artistic pretense and got drunk on their own sense of infalliabilty — and granted, such a sense likely becomes bloated thanks to the fannish gushing of people like me.

This is one of those films.

It starts out merely ridiculously lavish, both visually and emotionally, and that’s fine, at first. The palace of 10th-century Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat: Bulletproof Monk, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is dripping with gold and jade and brocade and looks like my favorite dim-sum place — Triple Eight Palace under the Manhattan Bridge in NYC’s Chinatown — exploded. What goes on in the palace is absurd, but only in a melodrama kind of way that makes a movie junk-food-a-licious. Empress Phoenix (Gong Li: Miami Vice, Memoirs of a Geisha) is sexing up the Crown Prince, Xiang (Liu Ye), which isn’t quite as gross as it sounds — he’s her stepson, the child of the emperor’s previous wife — and the Emperor is slowly trying to poison his wife to death, and he doesn’t even know about the whole sordid affair with his son; imagine what he’d do with that knowledge. And so things chug along, fueled by their own utter movie-movie silliness for quite a while, and you sit back and relax and settle in to enjoying the gorgeous folly of it all.

But before too long you start to realize that none of it makes sense — and I mean way beyond the not-making-sense that movies can often get away with. You start to lose track of who’s doing what to whom, and why, and then you come to appreciate that you never knew, actually, what the hell was going on. And then ninjas are attacking some faction or other, and we don’t know who they’re working for. And then armed and armored soldiers are swarming out of nowhere like orcs leftover from The Lord of the Rings who heard there was some good fighting to be had and rushed over.

It’s after that battle that Curse finally collapses under its own preposterousness and Zhang — who adapted a modern play about familial intrigue among wealthy industrialists in the 1930s and turned it into kung-fu opera — finally and irrevocably loses his mind. My brain actually goggled at the sequence that follows the battle, in which the bloody, gory mess is dealt with by the palace servants in what may be the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen on film — and not bizarre in a good way. And then my brain finally gave up and shut down at the ramped-up melodrama that followed. I’d like to say that because the film started off going to 11, it had nowhere to go from there, but Zhang, astonishingly — and not in a good way — turns the knob up to about 15, which, honestly, there was no room to do and still maintain any trust or consideration from the audience.

Or at least not from me. I don’t know why Zhang felt he had to rip my tender little movie lover’s heart from my chest and light it on fire, but he did. Bastard.

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MPAA: rated R for violence

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • Hoewr

    Were you watching the same film I was? It was quite easy to follow and also brilliant.

  • MaryAnn

    There’s the answer! I was watching a completely different film!

    I feel so much better now. I always hate it when my opinion doesn’t coincide with Hoewr’s.

  • I can attest that Chicago audiences are seeing the same prints of Curse of the Golden Flower&#151i.e., the excruciatingly overwrought and dumbly repetitive ones&#151that you did in New York, MaryAnn. Just so you know, before this alternate-versions problem gets completely out of control.

    (And P.S.: Hi!!! Hope you’re well. xo N)

  • Julie Winslett

    MaryAnn,

    We saw Curse last night and were utterly bewildered by all the hype it got. I went online to see what the reviewers said, and yours is by far the best. I agree with everything you said, and you said it so well. We were in stitches! I can’t believe that the man who made Hero made Curse. I didn’t think House of Flying Daggers was as good as Hero, but it was very good, nonetheless. But this mess just doesn’t make sense in any way. FYI -one thing in your review wasn’t quite accurate. It is revealed toward the end that the emperor is poisoning his wife because he did know about her affair with his son. It’s revealed in a talk the emperor has with his son where he tells the son that he doesn’t blame him – that he knows that his wife seduced him.

  • MaryAnn

    Ixnay on the poilersay, Julie!

    You’re right, of course, about what the emperor knows, but I didn’t see any point in spoiling that for those who did want to see the film. I was sort of representing the empress’s perspective: she doesn’t know that the emperor knows what she’s getting up to with his son.

  • Tofu

    This film was simply not confusing at all. Give yourself more credit here. It was all too stoic (although lavishly stoic) and simply designed (lavishly simple!) to draw any questions about the how’s or the what’s remaining.

    And no, to the viewer above, it really isn’t hard to see this is from the same Director as ‘Hero’.

    With that said, I believe much of this review came from simply not caring. I blame the pacing. Repetition as to grind away at one’s nerves (stylistically on purpose), and an outcome that makes Children of Men appear to be a hallmark channel tale.

  • MaryAnn

    And no, to the viewer above, it really isn’t hard to see this is from the same Director as ‘Hero’.

    Hmm. “No, it isn’t” isn’t really much of a comeback. Could you explain what you mean?

  • I don’t always agree with you, but I’m surprised by how much I don’t agree with you on this one. My reaction was the exact opposite. I adored every second of it, and I love its visceral excess and smoldering performances. I honestly had no trouble following the story, and I don’t think it’s any more crazy/ridiculous than King Lear or Macbeth (both of which it invoked). I love Zhang and I have yet to see a film of his that I don’t like, and this to me is the materpiece of his recent “trilogy.” Just thought I’d chime in.

  • George Ellis

    Zhang Yimou has always been a political film-maker. If his film is “overblown histrionics on a nuclear scale and ludicrousness that blots out the sun and total disconnect from reality that would make even Bugs Bunny go Wha” Maybe, it’s supposed to be that way.

    Maybe he is making a social / political comment about modern China: a country that has lost its subtlety, it’s abcient Confucian values and has become a disconected, dysfunctional society of egotists….
    At least, I hope so. Otherwise I have to agree with you.

  • Rebecca Bowers

    Kudos to you, George Ellis! The only reason i stumbled upon this supposed flick “(ph)ilosopher’s” page was because it was also obvious to me that there had to be more to the film than it’s absurdly lavish exterior, and i went on-line to see if anyone had any intelligent thoughts on the underlying significance of the film. One theme i noticed in the film was the relationship between heaven, earth, and man–which in the film is quite a disharmonious one. I am curious as to what exactly the film and Zhang were trying to say/represent/symbolize. There is so much more to this film than just “histrionics overblown on a nuclear scale.” All the melodrama; the ludicrousness; and the over-the-top acting, set design, costume, and ritual were meant to stand out like a sore thumb and direct our attention elsewhere. The ridiculousness of what was going on on the surface of this movie was supposed to cause the viewer to look deeper in an attempt to try to make some sense of it all. I am sorry you did not get this, Maryann. I think this was a beautiful film, with hidden shades of meaning and scope that i have yet to figure out fully (or probably ever will). Oh ye of little faith, Maryann. You were right to cower like an unworthy supplicant at Zhang’s cinematic feet in uncomprehending astonishment at how any mere mortal could transfer such transcendent splendidness to the screen. He’s apparently way out of your league.

  • MaryAnn

    Well, apparently you didn’t get it either, Rebecca, so I guess he’s out of your league, too.

    Or maybe he’s just full of shit this time out. Even a genius can screw up sometimes.

  • BREEZY

    ITS THE USUAL FAMILY PLOT WITH AN OBSESSED SUPERFICIAL BEING OF HIGH POLITICAL POWER WHO TAKES THINGS OVER THE EDGE. I DISAGREE WITH U SAYING THE EMPEROR DIDNT KNOW ABOUT THE AFFAIR BETWEEN HIS WIFE AND SON, BECAUSE HE EXPRESSED THAT HE DID KNOW.
    THE ONE THING I THINK THAT SUCKED WAS THAT THE STORY OF XIANG’S BIRTH MOTHER WAS NEVER REALLY TOLD. WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED TO HER AND THE KIND TO MAKE HIM WANT TO KILL HER AND HER WHOLE FAMILY BEFORE SHE MARRIED TH DOCTOR. AND THE OBSESSION OF THE KING STILL HOLDING ON TO HIM.
    THE NEW QUEENS JEALOUSY PUSADED HER TO FURTHERMORE SEDUCE HER STEPSON. IT WAS VERY BEAUTIFUL AND EYE CATCHING, BUT THE POINT WAS TO BE OVELY DRAMATIC BECAUSE THATS JUST HOW PEOPLE IN MONARCHY LIVED. THE BEAUTY OF ASIAN CUSTOMS AND DESIGN IS THAT OF GEORGEOUS AND VIBRANT COLOR WHICH NO ONE CONSUMES ANOTHER. BREATHTAKING! BUT STIL COULD HAVE BEEN ALOT BETER!!! THE EMPEROR COULD HAVE BEEN A BIT MORE HUMANLIKE.

  • MaryAnn

    Oh man, do my ears hurt…

  • WhatRU saying

    This is one of the worst reviews I’ve ever read. See how it’s really easy to just insult someone’s work… But really it is.

  • BraveGamgee

    She explained why she didn’t like it, as well as how much she has loved Zhang’s previous work. She’s a critic. It is her job to praise and critique films. You just said something insulting without explanation except to (presumably) make a point

  • Why don’t you explain what you liked about the film?

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