Curse of the Golden Flower

(2006) *** 1/2 R
114 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Zhang Yimou. Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li, Liu Ye, Chen Jin, Jay Chou.

Zhang Yimou is back with the latest Chinese competitor in the Opulence Olympics, and not a moment too soon for filmgoers unconvinced that Dreamgirls or Apocalypto will properly carry them away. Curse of the Golden Flower offers more visual dazzle than any film this year, and its delirious melodrama is a certified hoot. Offering splashy, trashy fun in a high-class setting, Curse of the Golden Flower is as overheated as Desperate Housewives, and twice the fun. At least until Teri Hatcher starts doing wire fu.

In fact, the film's domestic disputes originate in the 1934 Cao Yu play Thunderstorm; audaciously, Zhang has transmuted drawing-room drama into palace intrigue, circa the Tang Dynasty. Like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower is a martial-arts epic, but Zhang emphasizes pageantry more than ever as the ever-decked-out imperial family anticipates the Chrysanthemum Festival. The director takes advantage of every penny his current clout affords him to craft a grand opera bedecked in 10,000 chrysanthemums and outfitted with hundreds of extras.

After a separation of over a decade, Gong Li returns to her onetime muse and lover Zhang to play Empress to Chow Yun Fat's Emperor. Their sons (Liu Ye, pop star Jay Chou) jockey for love, attention, and rewards, but the family's rift runs much deeper than fraternal rivalry: Dad is poisoning Mom, and Mom is carrying on with her stepson. Though they ostensibly prepare the Chong Yang Festival for the benefit of their subjects, the entirely insular drama betrays their consuming self-interest. Intended as a family celebration of moral pillars (loyalty, filial piety, dignity, righteousness), the festival proves a charade that belies the Emperor's insistence on the propriety of natural law.

Zhang begins the film with women donning finery, men galloping on steeds, and gently falling chrysanthemum petals, and these superficial promises are more than fulfilled by the time an attempted coup breaks out on the flower-strewn palace approach (Hysteria Lane?). The characters are clearly defined, the lavish production design and costumes are nothing less than stunning, and the action, though infrequent, is jaw-dropping and crisply conceived, such as a duel by which a father asserts his prominence and a son demonstrates his worth.

Zhang's plants his ultimate ironic stinger when signs of the final battle are swiftly covered with fresh carpet and flowers. Despite appearances, the message is clear: when something is rotten in the state, no amount of regalia can disguise the stench. You think your family's dysfunctional? Try fighting off the effects of the black fungus or, for that matter, sword-fighting with Dad. With folks dreading their family get-togethers, Curse of the Golden Flower is just the picture for the holidays.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 3/27/2007

Distributor: Sony Home Entertainment

Sony's special edition of Curse of the Golden Flower looks as gorgeous on the home screen as it did on the big screen (and perhaps better, given the disc's quality control of color, sharpness, and sound). The hi-def anamorphic transfer shines brilliantly, and the keen Dolby Digital soundtrack serves the film well, in both action and dialogue—yellow subtitles help those of us not versed in Chinese.

The widescreen featurette "Curse of the Golden Flower: Secrets Within" (21:51) includes tantalizing behind-the-scenes footage as the crew dresses the set and Yimou works with the actors. Zhang Yimou talks extensively about the film's themes, and his approaches to the film's visuals and action. Also interviewed are Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, production designer Huo Tingxiao, costume designer Yee Chung Man, and action director Tony Ching Siu Tong. "On the Red Carpet—Curse of the Golden Flower Los Angeles Premiere: AFI Fest—November 12, 2006" (2:29) offers a few interview snippets of Zhang Yimou, Chow Yun Fat, and Gong Li on the red carpet.

Sony includes previews for Black Book, Offside, The Italian, House of Flying Daggers, Kung Fu Hustle, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Volver, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, American Hardcore, and The Quiet. One of the best films of 2007, Curse of the Golden Flower definitely deserves a look and, better yet, a place on the shelf next to Yimou's other sumptuous epics.
Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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