The Curse of the Golden Flower
Miami Vice and Hannibal Rising star Gong Li was roundly criticized in the Chinese press recently after speaking up for environmental issues in the senate while wearing fur. So it goes: Gong is as close to royalty as China allows these days, and that privilege doesn't come without scrutiny (she has also used her delegate status to try to curb media intrusions into privacy).
It's all a long way from the roles that made her name nearly twenty years ago now: in Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern and The Story of Qui Ju (all directed by her then lover Zhang Yimou) she was repeatedly cast as an enterprising peasant girl living off her wits, but often under the thumb of powerful men.
The films earned former cinematographer Zhang a reputation for sensitivity to women and sympathy for China's predominantly rural population. And they made Gong a star, not just in China but throughout the world. Together, they were the most glamorous couple in Asia. Then they split up and went their separate ways: Gong eventually finding success in Hollywood, via Memoirs of a Geisha; Zhang hitting the jackpot with costume epics Hero and House Of Flying Daggers (both vehicles for his new muse, Zhang Ziyi).
The Curse Of The Golden Flower is the first collaboration between director and star since they broke up a decade ago, and the least you can say is that Zhang has provided his ex with a meaty part.
When we meet her, the Empress Phoenix is already ailing from debilitating headaches, but still a beautiful woman caught up in a dangerous affair with her stepson Prince Wan (Liu Ye). The unexpected return of her husband the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) from the wars is enough to send Wan running for the hills - in any case, he is in love with the court physician's daughter. But Phoenix is not so easily intimidated, and has plans of her own timed around the imminent Chrysanthemum Festival.
Unlike Hero, and despite a couple of spectacular fight combat scenes involving gravity-defying ninjas (who seem to have stolen in from a different movie) Curse of the Golden Flower isn't really an action film, it's more of a chamber drama or court intrigue, with several serpentine plot twists and only a couple of fight scenes. That hasn't stopped Zhang from making this the most expensive Chinese film ever produced (roughly 23 million pounds).
The money is on screen all right. The Forbidden City has never looked so palatial - albeit in a pretty gaudy style: imagine a Las Vegas massage parlour for a fabulously wealthy clientele. Walls and corridors are coated in gold-leaf and encrusted in garish precious stones of purple and red. Costumes are even more ornate and decadent. (The Chinese dubbed the film 'Curse of the Golden Corset' in honour of Gong's prominently featured décolletage.) Zhang is one of cinema's great colourists, and he goes to town here. Colour-coded armies mass by the tens of thousands beyond the royal chambers, trampling transplanted fields of yellow flowers.
Ultimately the royal family self-destructs in a fashion that would leave even the Borgias speechless. You could call it 'art', or you could call it soap opera. But the movie is worth seeing for its garish, glandular grandeur, and for Gong's enthralling mixture of imperious arrogance, defiance, pride, passion and desperation.
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