Monday, October 01, 2007


Kurosawa meets Busby Berkeley

By Edward Copeland
Zhang Yimou assembles a world in Curse of the Golden Flower of stunning beauty, beauty nearly equal to his leading actress Gong Li, reunited with director for the first time in years. Still, as great as the movie works as an opulent spectacle, there remains something dramatically and emotionally inert about it that pales in comparison to the director's early exquisite films.

Set during the Tang dynasty of 10th-century China, Curse of the Golden Flower may be the most successful of Zhang's late-career switch from powerful small-scale dramas to martial-arts extravaganzas.

Hero left me cold, though I liked House of Flying Daggers for the most part, but Curse worked better for me because the fighting grows out of the story instead of seeming as if it was the only reason for the film to be made in the first place. Gong, who came to the world's attention in Zhang's early films, reunites with the director for the first time since 1995's Shanghai Triad.

She plays the wife of a powerful emperor (Chow Yun Fat), who for some reason is slowly poisoning his wife to drive her mad and eventually kill her. One of the problems with Curse is that even once the film is over, I still had no clear sense of why the emperor felt it necessary to off his wife in the first place, but no matter, what I did like about the film was the amazing imagery that Zhang creates on the screen.

The entire opening sequence seems more like an elaborate musical number as it sweeps and scans the emperor's palace and its assorted denizens with vivid colors, amazing costumes and even a good beat. Once the fighting ensues, it doesn't seem as if Zhang has just seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon too many times. The feudal-era fighting seems more earth-bound and the parts that do, particularly dark-clad warriors who literally slide into the scene on wires, are different enough to provoke admiration as opposed to a feeling of "I've seen this sort of thing enough."

Gong is great as usual, though this part doesn't give her the chance to flex her acting muscles the way her previous work with Zhang did, specifically Raise the Red Lantern and To Live.

In a way, Chow Yun Fat fares better because it's fun to see the man usually cast as the hero play a bit of a villain for a change and to let others do most of the fighting for him.

Still, when I think about the movie, I keep coming back to the remarkable production values. Yee Chung Man's wondrous costumes got a well-deserved Oscar nomination, but the production design by Huo Tingxiao deserved a nod as well.

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That's a pretty good title, Kurosawa meets Busby Berkeley - it pretty much gets to why I like Zhang's Wuxia films so much. Zhang has an exquisite eye and knows how to put a movie together - but Ching Siu-tung is the closest thing to Busby Berkeley going these days. I don't know if anyone choreographs for the camera with his grace and precision - since Berkeley. The problem with Ching's own films has tended to be low budgets and a kind of sloppiness getting from one action sequence to the next: Zhang turns those things into strengths. I'm least fond of this film of the three - there's less fighting... But as long as they keep working together, I'll keep going.
I love Yimou's work...'Curse' though is probably the first movie of his that has disappointed me a bit. I love both 'Hero' and 'Daggers' and even more so the earlier 'Raise The Red Lantern', 'To Live', 'Not One Less', etc. There's a strong sense of humanity and real characters and emotion throughout his work. That was also present in 'Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles' which came out between 'Daggers' and 'Curse' and which was a very moving smaller film reminiscent of earlier works.

But 'Curse' - for as much as I was drawn in to the gorgeous, well, everything - left me not really caring about the people. It's the first of his films that I don't really feel a strong need to see again (though I suppose I wouldn't avoid it either).
I'm surprised everyone here is commenting on how gorgeous this mvoie is - isn't gaudy a better word? Everything is ornate and over-colored, and we go from rainbow to full red to all gold, and it all looks terrible. Matched with this was the histrionic acting and hammy melodramatic plot that had more plot twists than the palace had tchotchkes. Each revelation was less revealing than the last (the audience I saw it with was laughing at the terrible reaction shots during the climax), as the characters succumbed to be less and less important to the success of the picture, and the climactic battle scene was all we had left. Yet the battle scene was almost entirely CGI, and poorly done at that! It amounted to a lot of sound and fury, and I left the theatre so empty. I love Yimou's other films. This, I hated. Just hated it.
>isn't gaudy a better word?

Hmmm, maybe...But I just know that it looked beautiful to me on screen. I'd probably kill myself if I had to live in those surroundings, but having seen many drab films or even just films where colour is an afterthought, I drank it in.

We tend to agree more on the plot and characters. I didn't hate it so much as I just didn't care to get involved with it (and I believe my audience also let out a few chuckles near the end). And yeah, the CGI wasn't exactly seamless.
I did think it was lovely to look at, but I do agree it's empty emotionally, the same way I felt about Hero and Daggers. I wish he could do more films like his earlier ones, but my guess is that's a little difficult living under the communist thumb that's gotten him in trouble before.
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