The Curse of the Golden Flower


Reviewed by: sukting

May 01, 2007

Rating: four

Foreword
This is an adaptation of Cao Yu's novel 'Lei Yu' – the storm but in a different era. It is also Zhang Yi Mou's third epic. How does it fare? Zhang has swapped the 1930s for the Tang Dynasty and transformed the businessman into an emperor.

Story

Something is rotten with the state of this Imperial Family. While the Emperor and Prince Yuan Jie have been away at the battlefront, the Empress has been growing a little too close to her stepson, Crown Prince Yuan Xiang . Meanwhile, the weak-willed Wan has his eye on a delectable servant girl Can, whose father happens to be the Emperor's trusted physician.

Following his boss' orders, the doctor has secretly been adding a new ingredient - one that can drive a sane person mad - to a medicinal brew the ailing Empress is made to drink each day. Suspecting that her position in the court is in danger, the Empress launches a scheme to overthrow her husband on the eve of the annual Chong Yang Festival, when the palace is festooned with golden chrysanthemums.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg in a plot that also includes another case of incest, numerous betrayals and those aforementioned black-cloth-clad assassins that swing into battle to slowly poison the Empress who, when learning about her man's homicidal intentions, plans a coup by distributing thousands of golden flowers, i.e. chrysanthemums, to the army.

Rounding the complications are the loyal middle son Prince Yuan Jie, his father's secret choice to succeed to the throne and a brave soldier who has just returned from the northern skirmishes against the Mongols; and ignored youngest Prince Yuan Cheng (Qin Junjie), seething inside with jealous hatred and ambition. Playing their public roles amidst gorgeous accoutrements, the family members pursue their cloudy agendas: physician, wife and daughter are treacherously sent away on a theoretical promotion, the Empress embroiders endless golden chrysanthemums, her husband bottles his towering rage, poor Yuan Jie is torn between the two parents, Yuan Xiang impetuously follows his young love, Yuan Cheng broods his takeover.

The emperor tries killing Xue's family. Mrs. Xue escapes with Can to seek revenge in the palace in vain. She later reveals that she is the previous queen – Yuan Xiang's mother. Little does she know that Yuan Xiang has created incest with his half-sister Can. The mother and daughter are killed instantly before the coup starts by the Emperor's men.

Yuan Xiang is killed by Yuan Cheng – much to their parents' astonishment. Yuan Cheng has all along been neglected by his parents so he secretly plans another coup to rebel. The emperor is so furious that he slashes him to death with his belt. Of course, the other coup also fails. Yuan Jie kills himself with the emperor's sword upon seeing him forcing the queen to drink the potion again. It ends with the queen, carrying Yuan Jie's corpse and crying in the end.

There's so much story to get through here that the martial arts take a backseat for the first half of the film, something that may surprise - and possibly upset - those viewers who are going in expecting another "Hero." But they can rest assured that the climactic battle, which lasts well over a half-hour, is worth the wait. In fact, this extended sequence is only enhanced by the fact that we've spent so much time with the characters beforehand and have a clear understanding of their motivations and goals.

Introduction on characters

1. Emperor Ping – Chow Yun Fat
This poor guy (using the term loosely for The Emperor, of course), not unaware of his wife's philandering, has been slowly poisoning her, obliging her to drink his supposed health potion which he has recently been spiking with a root of the loyal doctor's (Ni Dahong) devising that will eventually turn her brain to butter.

As the emperor, and the film's seething fulcrum, Chow, the action star, delivers a performance of amazing intensity, focusing his considerable energy inward to suggest a volcano primed to erupt. His pairing with the incomparable Ms. Gong is no less than inspired. Locked in a tug of war for control of their offspring, the couple provides the film with a core of marital toxicity that's almost nonverbal and deliciously unstable.

Chow is so cool that we continually underestimate the Emperor's ruthless grip on power. Whenever the Empress is not openly making cow eyes at her weak-willed stepson (Liu Ye), she's sneaking more venom into a glance at her husband than he is sneaking into her bloodstream.

2. Queen Phoenix – Gong Li
She is an unhappy queen. Most of the time, the King and Yuan Jie are away for war. Being lonely, she set eyes on Yuan Xiang and both start to have secret affairs. But this man lets her down for being timid. Knowing that she will be poisoned to death any minute, she plans a coup to save her own skin.

Gong Li does wonders with her melodramatic role. Swathed in gold from head to foot, including her eyelids and fingernails, she's a gilded peacock, regal and perfectly controlled. This empress dismisses unwanted courtiers with an imperious flick of her flowing sleeve; in a sea of hot colors, she's an elegantly chilly island. No one can surpass her position to be the eastern movie queen. Her acting was perfect.

3. Yuan Xiang – Liu Ye
Yuan Xiang is the crown prince. The Empress turns to her step-son for her physical needs. But don't blame her - he's pretty much all that's available what with hubby, the Emperor, exiled from her bed and affections. To exacerbate the problem, Xiang's heart beats not for her but for cute and lissome Can (Li Man), the Imperial Doctor's daughter. This man slept with the wrong women for the wrong reasons.

I simply despised this man for being a good-for-nothing. I am not sure he really loves Can as he goes all the way to the outskirts to look for her and sleep with her. He isn't a warrior like Yuan Jie too. He is too timid to go against his father – even to stab himself to gain his trust. However, he doesn't know that the emperor dotes on him the most to plan to give him his throne. How he can forgive him for sleeping with his queen and why he only runs after the queen's blood still leave me confused.

How this actor go in the wrong direction of acting! This is an adapted stage play but how can he act like a stage actor?! It is so painful to see him acting onscreen – others act naturally but he doesn't.

4. Yuan Jie – Zhou Jie Lun
He is the second prince. He is away for long battles and is unaware of what happens to the queen. Even after he knows, he has to watch painfully on how she drinks the poisonous potion. Not given a choice, he has to help his mother. When the rebellion fails and the emperor forcing him to let her drink the potion, he can take it no longer and slashes his own throat with his sword.

Jie Lun does his role as the filial son well. He does have close chemistry with Gong Li and Chow Yuen Fatt as parents and son. He also does the fighting scenes well too.

5. Yuan Cheng – Qin Jun Jie
Yuan Cheng is the youngest prince but he doesn't think that he should be deprived the chance of being the future emperor. He may look innocent on the outside but he knows too many secrets to set up his own army secretly. Since he shows no mercy in killing Yuan Xiang, the emperor also doesn't spare him. Even the protection vest can't help to save his life on that fateful day. This newcomer is too raw in his acting. But we can't expect too much from him because he is acting with a cast of powerhouses.

6. Physician Xue - Ni DaHong
He is the top palace physician and trains his only daughter to be his successor. He knows that his promotion is actually a demotion when he has to leave the palace. He saved his wife many years ago and nurses her back to health but he doesn't question her past. A pity that he dies without knowing why.

7. Mrs Xue – Chen Jin
She is the ex-queen and also Yuan Cheng's mother. The emperor puts her in jail and tortures her. She escapes but he lies to Yuan Xiang that his mother is dead. Her portrait still prominent, the discarded cheek-branded woman mysteriously shows up as a Ninja aid to her successor, as the hidden wife of Dr. Ni and thus as the mother of Can, with whom Xiang is carrying on a true-love affair, the incestuous nature of which neither realizes. It is sad she can't tell Can why she can't marry Yuan Xiang.

This actress gives a powerful performance. The way that she confronts the king to relate how her family is wiped out in her bitter memory is sure a classic. It makes you feel like her inner pain that comes through her heart. Tough as nails, this doctor's wife will prove a paper tiger and, with her hysterical daughter, fall easily when the chips are down. What a let-down!

8. Xue Can – Li Man
She is the physician's daughter but is a moron. Can you believe that she asks her father about the potion contents at work before giving it to the queen? She can't reject Yuan Xiang's affections for her and both end up having affairs. The queen nearly disposes her but Yuan Xiang protects her. Still, she is unable to escape from the Emperor's hands to have a sad ending.

Does Zhang intend to promote her? I have no confidence that she can go far like Gong Li or Zhang Zi Yi. I only find her mediocre in acting. She lacks the 'x' factor, in looks and also poise. When she walks with the palace maids, she looks like one of them. She will have problems standing out in a crowd. She was only 17 and a Zhong Yang Academy first-year student when shooting this movie.

Most Favourite Character
Yuan Jie, he is dutiful and also loyal to his parents. But he doesn't have a say in his parents' war. This is very tragic when he dies in front of them.

Most Hated Character
Yuan Xiang – he is only a womanizer who is too eager to end up in bed with any woman – from his stepmother to his sister. It seems that the emperor knows his limits so that is why he gets Yuan Jie to strike his world for him. Life can be so unfair when he gets all the credit.

Interesting Facts

The first scene related how the queen has not met Yuan Jie for 3 years. But in reality, both had not even met! But Zhou had to act like as Gong's favourite son and to show his filial piety and how he missed her. She tried to show her motherly side of concern, reminding herself of her own mother. It was an automatic chemical reaction when Zhou did not have any rehearsal with her to react quickly.

Gong and Chow became good friends too. He was nice to every artiste and working counterpart. When his car arrived for some time but he had not stepped into the make-up room, the make-up artistes explained that he had gone to greet everyone, shaking their hands.

We see how yellow the scenes are. The yellow chrysanthemum stage and golden clothes/palace are everywhere. The colourful pillars and the blood stains on the chrysanthemum stage gives an elegant and grand feeling. The speed which which they clear the blood stains by replacing the flower pots and carpets after a massive killing is amazingly fast.

The dragon and phoenix robes were 40kg-heavy. Zhou's armour robe was 46kg. 1000 soldiers trained for the war scenes. 1000km of carpet, 300,000 chrysanthemums, 600 palace lamps and 300 acting academy students acted as the palace maids. Aren't the scenes fascinating? But it later proved that their bosoms captured the most attention. Zhang showed too many 'buns' to all. Many joked that they needed lots of chrysanthemum tea to cool down.

Many may envy the extras for getting the chance to act in this great film but they had thousands of woes to pour. They are still students. They had to endure long hours of shooting and were given cheap meals. The costumes were hard for them to breathe in.

Chow repeatedly yelled in the filming studio – was it really for a king? Who says it is easy to be the king? He had 7 different costumes, including the armour. The dragon robe used golden thread to include 18k golden pieces – done by 80 workers in a month. It was worth RMB125,000. He admitted having the most NG scenes because of his mandarin. He engaged a tutor but related it was tough to speak Beijing Mandarin.

How did he think of Zhou Jie Lun? He joked Zhou was tall enough but he was definitely not by him or Gong Li because his eyes are small. Zhou also gave in his first time – his bathing scene – 20 lucky ones got the chance. Zhou had never bathed in front of so many people, especially when many of them were acting as the palace maids! They had to add flower petals into his bath – this made him feel strange and shy.

There was also his first scene of sheding tears for Gong Li in the movie. That required no NG but he immediately got his assistant to pass him the tissue to wipe his tears away. He had never wanted to let anyone see the weak side of him.

Director-cowriter Zhang assembles this story with an astounding visual style; scene after scene takes our breath away with lush colours, rich textures and a massive sense of scale. This royal family lives in the apex of opulence, and the film catches this in ways that are both microscopic and enormous. From the golden terraces of chrysanthemums to the armies of clashing soldiers, it's quite literally spectacular.

The movie was not on the Oscars shortlist. Chow was nominated for best actor, Gong Li best actress while Li Ye and Jie Lun are nominated for best supporting actor in the Hong Kong movie awards. Gong Li won while Jie Lun's chrysanthemum stage won the best film score.

Flaws on the Movie

These observations are collected from China viewers. I was amused when reading so I translated them to share with all.

1) There is only a scene where Gong Li sews the chrysanthemum that all can see the candle moving under the casing. The hundreds of lanterns hung outside never shows the expected glow – that means that all are using light bulbs. (One asked why Zhang was so stingy in using some special effects.)

2) Liu Ye's Yuan Xiang - many saw him blinking his eyelashes after 'dying' for a long time.

3) Mrs. Xue has the word 'crime' on her left cheek and it was obvious that it was pasted to her face. Some could see a corner getting loose when she cries or the surrounding has wrinkled as she talks.

4) The so-called banquet only has a few cups of wine. Why isn't there any food around for Chong Yang?

5) The five have the meeting at the summit. Even though it was for the blink of the eye of a second, many saw modern housing faraway.

6) Can a queen be doing the sewing and doing the make-up all by herself? Even though this is to depict that she is poisoned and she can't put the hairpin into her hair with trembling hands, all are not convinced. How can there be no palace maids to wait on her?

7) The emperor sits on a chair for a 'sauna' . The palace maids have removed the cloth on the chair before he sits so why does it appear when he sits?

8) There are many chrysanthemums placed in the beginning part but why can't they see the pots?!

Songs
It is called the chrysanthemum stage – "ju hua tai". Many noticed the change in Zhou's singing – his dictation is very clear. He explained that all mainland Chinese watched this movie. His dictation must be clear or no one will know what he sings. Normally I hate his unclear dictation of many songs but this song makes me change my mind. He sings it well. He pens a rocky main theme 'Golden Armour' – it relates strong army spirit and the impact of the war. Who says that he runs out of ideas quickly? But it does sound more like a normal TVB "mou hap" drama song.

Conclusion

It is not easy to do a Cao Yu famous stageplay remake. To make it into a good movie is many times more difficult to adapt a Shakespeare play. How did Zhang do it? He placed his complete confidence in the cast. It was a joy to see how Chow pit his acting skills against Gong. They fought secretly. Every scene is captivating. That motivates Zhou and Qin to throw in their best although they can be raw.

Beginning with endless rows of pretty maids dressing themselves for their court duties, and moving on to oceans of sunshine-yellow chrysanthemums and palace rooms wildly decorated with lashings of pink, orange and gold is vivid to the point of near-explosion. (It seemed as if the world had been suddenly drained of color.)

But while "Curse" is always enjoyable to watch, it seems a bit familiar; much of the action sequences (some of which feature flying daggers) are reminiscent of scenes in Yimou's previous films. And there's nothing here as glorious as the Echo Game in "Flying Daggers," or the richly autumn-hued duels of "Hero." "Curse," in its lavishness, occasionally comes off as a tad silly.

The armies are so vast they rival those of Middle-earth, and all chrysanthemum embroidering eventually becomes bizarre. "You are truly insane," someone tells the madly stitching empress late in the film, and it comes off as an understatement; you wonder if they're about to cart her off to some obsessive-sewing support group.

The story is powerful as well, with a pointed examination of a family ripping itself apart in the most horrific way. Gong has the most impressive scene-chewing role, as her poison drives her insane, not that she needs any help. She layers the character with all kinds of internal aches and pains. And everyone around her is similarly conflicted. Chou is the standout, as a smart young man forced into a terrible corner. Zhang has improved in developing a good storyline this time.

Sukting's ratings :

On acting : **** (Scale of 5) (Had thought of giving it a 4.5 but have to cut down as Liu Ye was bad.)

On story : ***1/2 (Scale of 5)

On songs : ****1/2 (Scale of 5)(the songs are really good. You must not miss them!)


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