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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