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Thursday, August 30, 2007

DVD REVIEW: Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) ****


R for violence.
1 hr. 54 min.
written by: Zhang Yimou, Wu Nan & Bian Zhihong (screenplay) and Cao Yu II (from the play "Thunderstorm")
produced by: Bill Kong & Zhang Weiping
directed by: Zhang Yimou

Qin Junjie , Liu Ye , Gong Li and Jay Chou in Sony Pictures Classics' Curse of the Golden Flower

My interest in ancient samurai, ninjas and Eastern folklore came from reading comic books as a kid. I was pretty floored when I read about how tied into Japan and the way of the samurai Logan aka Wolverine was in Uncanny X-Men. Then I came across Frank Miller's cover to First Comics' Lone Wolf & Cub #1, a lone samurai protecting his cub, or baby. so anytime anything samurai or something similar popped up in the comics I was reading, I was pretty excited. So, this review comes with a lil bias due to my affinity for especially historical epics, all things Eastern, samurai, feudal times, and any kind of Dynasty....no, not the Carrington/Colby kind.

Now, I can't say I know much about the Tang Dynasty but I can attest to a knowledge of dysfunctional families. And that's pretty much what this film is all about in a very Shakespearean way. In Zhang Yimou's latest historical epic, Emperor Ping (Chow Yun Fat), is pleased to be bringing his family together for the annual Chrysanthemum Festival. The event is meant to symbolize and celebrate family unity, and since this is the first time in three years his middle son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), is back from gaining valuable life lessons on the battlefield, this particular Festival holds a special significance. Unfortunately, this is all for show and daddy's a lil clueless.The bond of this royal family is no more natural than the fields of golden flowers that have been strewn across the courtyard of the Forbidden City. With it's cultural traditions and strict family customs, it's obvious there wasn't a whole lotta family bonding to be had. This was a time when women were submissive and men had the final word. There is a most ostentatious regime present....it takes four servants to serve one cup of medicine--and the Emperor will show off his family, whether they like him or not.
Chow Yun-Fat in Sony Pictures Classics' Curse of the Golden Flower
This dysfunctional family dynamic is especially complicated. The Emperor has been married once before, and the union bore him his first son, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye). That fate of that first wife is clouded in mystery, something the second wife, Empress Phoenix (Gong Li), remembers well. She has given her Emperor two sons, Jai and Yu (Qin Junjie). While Yu is still young and somewhat inconsequential to the Royal life (much to his consternation), Jai is really the favored child, more suited to the throne than his older brother. The love Jai is shown is also laced with suspicion, however, as the Emperor fears he might make a grab for power too early. When they are reunited, the Emperor makes a show of this, as well, engaging his middle son in a duel to remind the young prince that the old man still has some moves left. A spectacularly choreographed scene that this samurai fan enjoyed very much.
Part of the Emperor's mistrust of his son comes from his strained relationship with the boy's mother. A sickly woman, the Empress is barely on speaking terms with her husband. Even if there is no love in the royal bedchamber, that doesn't mean the palace is absent of passion. For some time now, the Empress has been having an affair with her stepson. Hello! Meanwhile, Crown Prince Wan is also canoodling behind closed doors with Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the king's physician (Ni Dashong). While the Empress suspects that Chan is drawing Wan's affections from her, little does she know that Chan is also an agent of death. Emperor Ping has instructed his doctor to slowly poison Empress Phoenix, and the physician has given the task to his daughter, the servant who delivers the queen her medicine (which will slowly drain her of all mental faculties), every other hour on the hour. There is some question whether Phoenix is even sick at all, or if the years of being forced to take this bitter potion has just been Ping's way of sedating her. Either way, the mixture that is supposed to be saving her is now slowly killing her.
With her loving son finally returned to her, Empress Phoenix is now fed up with such treatment and is going to make her move. She is embroidering thousands of crests featuring the golden chrysanthemum to adorn her revolutionary army, and she and Jai will stage a coup when the festival is in full swing. Naturally, along the way, a few more betrayals come into play, and a few mysteries will be revealed, as several sins of the past come back to haunt all the members of Emperor Ping's corrupted bloodline. This is the typical way of the tragedy, whether it be Tan Dynasty, Greek Mythology or Shakespeare.
Jay Chou in Sony Pictures Classics' Curse of the Golden Flower
Upon viewing this film for the first time I was captivated by everything. From the drama of the story to the beautiful costume and art direction, this movie is takes hold of the senses. It demands your attention because you are so intrigued by the characters and what makes them who they are. None of these characters are one-sided, neither are all good nor all bad. Even the Emperor, with his precise, controlling manner and compulsive need to present a strong fa├žade, only does so out of interest for the greater good. He wants to preserve the law and order of his kingdom, and he believes the best ruler leads by example. Irregardless, he is still a man, and the revelation that he is aware of the relationship between his son and wife also exposes the bitter sting he's been living with. None of this excuses his cruelty, but it does make some sense of his actions understandable. It's almost as if he is upset with himself for not showing his emotions to his alienated family sooner.
Likewise, Empress Phoenix is no mere Lady Macbeth with a simplistic will to power. Knowing that rebellion is the only way to survive her husband's murder plot, she begins by seeking to live up to her own name and rise from the ashes of her disastrous marriage. In some ways, she is also crusading for female pride, her revenge on Emperor Ping avenging his first wife by proxy. Even when she is playing pale and sickly, Gong Li is still resplendent. There is no question as to why she is the center of male attention in the royal palace. Even those who aren't let in on her plot fall on their sword out of jealousy at not being included.
Yimou's more popular films, "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers", are filled with astounding feats of action and there is plenty here, though it's not nearly the focus it was in those two films. There are several battles involving the Emperor's ninjas trying to put one of his skeletons back into its closet. Also, the coup itself, as Jai leads his small army into the Forbidden City, is both awe-inspiring as grand spectacle and gut wrenching as the blood flows in very personal ways. There is an balletic elegance to the action here as in his other films and the emotion involved in these scenes is something that is remiss in the popular action films out there.
Gong Li in Sony Pictures Classics' Curse of the Golden Flower
Back to the art direction provided by Oscar-nominated costume designer Yee Chung Man and production designer Huo Tingxiao--is just as much a star as any of the actors. The imperial palace is recreated in exacting detail. Every inch of the frame is packed with ornate decoration and color. As Empress Phoenix walks down the gaudy hallways of her royal prison, it looks like she is surrounded by great tidal waves of paint that flow in and out as she moves forward. Similarly, her gowns tightly confine her, pushing up her bosom while constraining her waist, in service to the double-edge of beauty--the dresses make her look fabulous while also standing as a symbol of female repression. The movements of the clothes are choreographed with as much care as the clashing of swords in the fight scenes. Sleeves ripple, buttons pop, and hairpins go flying as Ping unleashes his fury, and blood stains Phoenix's embroidered emblems as if those waves had finally fallen, drowning the royal court.
This film is the current apex of the most recent cycle of Zhang Yimou's career. He began exploring the art-house martial arts genre back with "Hero", and ever since he's been slowly working his way back to the historical costume dramas that first earned him his reputation. "Golden Flower" is a tragedy of epic grandeur, transferring the personal calamities of his films like "Raise the Red Lantern" to a more mythic context. The result, is nothing short of Shakespearean, but with touches of beauty that are pure Yimou. He is a director whose film's can easily be revisited and often a viewer must be just that in order to take in all that his film's have to offer. Casting Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li, two of China's finest actors, is a powerhouse move on its own, but the tragic script and the gorgeous art direction both give these amazing performers a worthy workspace to show their craft. This is for those like royal intrigue with a healthy dose of action mixed in.
Special Features:
There are two extra features on this DVD, alongside 10 trailers for recent Sony releases (including Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles). The first documentary is "Secrets Within," your basic behind-the-scenes featurette. It covers the genesis of the movie, the director and the main actors, and the construction of the set and costume design. Some of the footage of the production being put together is quite impressive, and Zhang Yimou talks in depth about the themes and the meaning of the film. There is also compilation of footage of Yimou, Yun Fat, and Li on the red carpet at the Los Angeles premiere last November.
Chow Yun-Fat and director Zhang Yimou on the set of Sony Pictures Classics' Curse of the Golden Flower
The Skinny:
  • The film boasts the largest set ever built for a movie in China, surpassing Chen Kaige's "The Promise".
  • It took over 20 days to shoot the battle scene.
  • The empress's Phoenix Crown weighed 12 pounds.
  • More than 1000 real soldiers were used in the final battle.
  • Curse of the Golden Flow also known literally as When Golden Armor Covers the Entire City.
  • It was chosen as China's entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for the year 2006; it was not nominated in that category though it did receive a Costume Design nomination.
  • The title of the movie is taken from the last line of a Tang dynasty poem attributed to the rebel leader Huang Chao, "On the Chrysanthemum, after failing the Imperial Examination" or simply "Chrysanthemum":
When autumn comes on Double Ninth Festival,/ my flower [the chrysanthemum] will bloom and all others perish./ When the sky-reaching fragrance [of the chrysanthemum] permeates Chang'an,/ the whole city will be clothed in golden armour.
  • Due to the film's high profile while it was still in production, its title, became a colorful metaphor for the spring 2006 sandstorms in Beijing and the term "golden armor" has since become a metaphor for sandstorms among the locals.
  • The plot is based on Cao Yu's 1934 play Thunderstorm (pinyin: Lei Yu), but is set in the imperial court of the Later Shu, which was during the turbulent Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.
  • The use of nail extensions by the Empress was not popular during the Tang Dynasty, but only after the Ming Dynasty several centuries later.
  • Plate armor,worn by Prince Jai and Emperor Ping in the movie, was unpopular throughout Chinese history, as it restricted movement, and was thus unlikely to have been used. Scale and lamellar were preferred over plate for this reason.
  • The dresses the Empress and her servants wore were given an unrealistic cleavage. In fact, camisoles were part of the wardrobe of upper class women in China in times gone by.
  • Besides starring in the film, Jay Chou has also recorded a song to accompany the film, titled "Chrysanthemum Terrace", released on his 2006 album Still Fantasy.

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