A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 423 – Curse of the Golden Flower

Curse of the Golden Flower – April 27th, 2011

Going into this movie I knew next to nothing about it. Chinese period piece with lovely visuals and Chow Yun Fat? Yes, that was pretty much it. And that does describe it on one level. It’s a very pretty movie and it is indeed a period piece and Chow Yun Fat plays the emperor who looms over the entire story. But there’s a hell of a lot going on in this story and in this movie. It’s a brutal story, full of characters who seem sympathetic but aren’t, but then again they are.

I really wish I wasn’t fighting a head cold right now because I’d love to spend more time on this review and I simply can’t. Not without losing precious sleep. This movie deserves more attention and time than I can invest in it tonight, which is a real shame. Because it’s beautiful and tragic and after listening to a little bit of the director talking about it, I’ve got things to say about a few of the character and I’m afraid I’m going to end up glossing over too much. So I apologize for that right now. And I would highly recommend this movie with a couple of caveats: There are no happily ever afters here and the movie has some incestuous relationships. If you’re not up for dealing with either of those, just walk on by.

I’d rather not spoil the specifics, but one incident of incest is rather crucial to the plot and comes out very early on. Set in the Imperial palace in ancient China, the movie follows the implosion of the royal family. The Emperor has three sons: Wan, the eldest, was his first wife’s. Jai is the next, followed by Yu, both of whom are the sons of the current Empress. For the past ten years the Empress has been taking medicine every two hours as ordered by the Emperor. For the past ten days it has been poisoned with a plant that will drive her mad, also as ordered by the Emperor. The Empress is having an affair with her stepson, Wan, who doesn’t want to continue it. Jai has been stranded out on the borders to be taught to respect his father’s control. And then there’s Yu. Whom no one seems to pay any attention to. And they all come together for the upcoming Chrysanthemum Festival, where the schemes and plots and secrets they’re all hiding and planning will come to a head.

What strikes me about this movie is the contrast between the overtly lavish sets and setting – clearly made for the purpose of showing just how opulent the Imperial palace and lifestyle is here – and the very personal views we get of the various desperate characters. As I mentioned before, very few of the characters are completely sympathetic. Jai, yes. His brothers? Not so much. And I should feel sympathetic towards Wan, who’s stuck in an impossible situation, but his actions make it difficult to feel completely one way or another. It’s the same with the Empress. On one hand you feel terrible for her, stuck in a loveless marriage with a cruel husband whom she knows is poisoning her, but on the other hand she’s forced her step-son into a clearly unwelcome sexual relationship. And the Emperor? He’s so far on the nasty end of the spectrum it’s amazing. It’s an impressive display of characters who have all been so hurt and twisted they end up hurting others and perpetuating a cycle that’s leading inexorably downwards. But really, it’s all the Emperor’s fault at the root.

It comes out later on that his first wife didn’t die as he claimed, and that revelation and its implications are what truly start to rock this already sinking boat. While the Empress apparently rapidly loses her grip on reality it ends up seeming as though perhaps she’s unwittingly set up the ultimate in revenge on the man who put her in the position she’s been trapped in. And according to the director, one of the things he wanted to highlight in the movie was the horrible situation a woman would be in at the time period in the movie. He seems to have wanted to show just how bad it could be and in the comments made on camera he’s speaking of the Empress specifically, but I believe there are two others who are far more sympathetic and clearly caught up in a world in which they could never have won. Regardless, it’s an interesting note for the movie and if I had more time I’d want to really explore it.

I’ve spent so much time talking about the plot – which I believe is based on a play from the 1930s and I’d love to see that too – I haven’t really taken the time to talk about the visuals. But they deserve some time. They are astounding. And that’s a lot of the point. They should be gorgeous and opulent and amazing. The vast numbers of servants, the lavish clothing, the rooms, the carpets, the masses of yellow chrysanthemums. It is, in the true sense of the word, decadent. I loved the feel that this all gave the movie. It turns the palace into a very elaborate and large cage for those living inside it. What I also found fascinating was the huge number of servants who always seemed to be around. Sure, the Emperor and Empress dismiss them with the wave of a hand whenever sensitive topics are spoken of, but given the response time when something is needed? There is always a servant nearby. There is no way all of the scheming and vitriol would stay a secret. Yet the family clearly assumes that no one will speak of their secrets. Because their underlings are only barely people to them. Yet another symptom of their sickness.

I enjoyed this movie quite a lot, even if it was brutal. The cast is fantastic, and I don’t just mean Chow Yun Fat. Gong Li as the Empress brought a much needed humanity to her and all three actors playing the princes were wonderful. Everyone involved seems to have truly nailed their characters, making this a difficult movie in many respects, but difficult in the way that I like movies to be difficult. They aren’t simple characters, or easy ones. They’re complicated and painful and so are their relationships. It was, in my opinion, excellently crafted in every respect to be beautiful and terrible all at the same time.

April 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Curse of the Golden Flower

April 27, 2011

Curse of the Golden Flower

We’ve reviewed a couple of Yimou Zhang movies for the project by now so although I haven’t seen this before tonight I thought I knew what to expect tonight. I was expecting something lush and gorgeous with spectacular and well choreographed martial arts sequences. And I got that, but this movie is also so much that I had not expected. I had not expected an epic tragedy full of intrigue, secrets and betrayal. I was not expecting something of this scope and grandeur. I could not have anticipated anything of this opulence and sheer scale – simply because there isn’t anything else like this out there. The closest I can come is Akira Kurosawa’s grand Shakespearean adaptation Ran, and that was constrained by the practical limitations of the time. Here, with the modern technology that made possible the epic battles of the Lord of the Rings series with apparently unlimited resources and a cast that appears to reach into the tens of thousands Zhang has made one of the most impossibly colossal movies of all time.

At the same time there is a surprisingly intimate story buried in this grand and extravagant movie. It’s a story about a family torn apart by secrets. We’re introduced to the imperial family slowly, getting a feel for each of them and the burdens they carry. At the center of the movie is the Empress – consort to the Emperor and mother to two of his sons. She has been having an affair with the Emperor’s other son, Wan, the eldest who was born of another Empress. Her elder son, Jai, is a steadfast and honest young man freshly returned from the frontier where he has been commanding the imperial armies. Then there’s the eager and youthful Yu, the youngest prince, who longs for glory of hos own and chafes at always being in the shadow of his elder siblings.

It would seem that the Emperor is aware of the Empress’ affair, and he has commanded his physician to start administering a gradual poison to the Empress in the cordial she is required by the Emperor to drink every two hours. With time, the physician tells his daughter Chan, the black mushroom being fed to the empress will destroy her mind. Meanwhile Chan has also been having an affair with Wan, who seems to be somewhat of an irresponsible layabout.

Things really get complicated when a mysterious woman in black shows up in the palace. She is the wife of the Imperial physician, mother of Chan, but the brand on her face hints at a darker past which she does not wish to initially divulge. She wants to help the Empress because she bears a grudge against the Emperor, and it is the root of that grudge that drives the film towards its inevitable and tragic conclusion.

To ground such a grand tragedy Zhang needed a stellar cast, and he clearly has that here. Chow Yun Fat portrays the Emperor. He’s so wonderfully imposing – a cold and aloof man isolated by his power. On the other side we have Li Gong as the Empress. She’s the primary character, and her quiet desperation and determination is almost palpable.

Add to this great story and great cast some astonishingly detailed production design, elaborate period costumes and an enormous apocalyptic battle and you have this movie. The sets are astonishing. In particular the halls of the palace with their glowing glass pillars are so detailed that it humbles you just to look at it. The vast courtyard of the imperial palace is apparently the largest movie set ever constructed in China and was big enough to dwarf the thousand professional soldiers involved in the battle scene there. (Their ranks were augmented by computer to fill the space.) The costumes too are intricate, detailed and ornate. Apparently they were also quite heavy and cumbersome.

This movie is an amazing accomplishment. It tells an interesting story of corruption, decadence and decay, and it tells it on a scale not often to be found even in the modern era of hundred million dollar blockbuster movies. I’d say that this is a movie that could not be made here in the United States. It’s so quintessentially Chinese. Not just in language and design, but in thought. Only in modern China, I think, could such a film exist. I’m glad it does exist too, because this movie makes the entire world a richer place.

April 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment