January 10, 2007

Zhang Yimou Gives Audiences What He Thinks They Want

gongli.jpgInvariably cocktail conversation for the Cinecultist turns to movies and what we've seen in the theaters, particularly during this end of the year top 10 season. Everyone seems to like to talk about film and you can imagine it only takes a little bit of egging on to get CC going. Disappointment in Zhang Yimou's newest Curse of the Golden Flower seems to be a favorite topic in these conversations, especially if our fellow revelers know about CC's penchant for Asian cinema. Sadly though when you think about Curse for very long you realize poor, deluded Zhang is only giving his audiences what he thinks they want to see on screen--lavish spectacle, gorgeous actors, a few gravity defying sword fighting scenes and some decadent sexual intrigue. However, the combination of these elements which may have given him big box office successes in the past have only delivered an empty shell of a movie. Curse is all surface, a gorgeous shiny color riot of a surface, but really no substance.

Set during the Tang Dynasty in China, this royal family is beyond dysfunctional. The king and his second wife's marriage has dissolved in the most chilly of public displays. Every day he commands she drink a tea he has prepared specially for her, predicated upon the assumption that she has severe health issues. Though she'd probably be healthier if the King wasn't secretly poisoning her with said tea. Of their three sons, the eldest (and from a mysterious first marriage), is set to be the next king, if only Dad doesn't find out Step Mom and son have been having an illicit affair. First son is also dallying with a girl from the court, the daughter of the King's physician. Meanwhile, the second son has returned from battles on the borders and discovers how rotten things have gotten at home. He wants to help his mother, but will he be able to act out against his all powerful father?

With such an operatic and convoluted plot, you'd think ordinarily strong actors like Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat could make this material compelling. Instead, it all becomes so muddled that you can hardly tell which end is up. As the forces of intrigue barrel towards a final showdown during the festival of the Chrysanthemum (the gold colored flower from the title), it should seem all the more momentous but instead the action becomes disposable. Like the hordes of soldiers dispatched and then swept away during the bloody coup the Queen organizes, nothing in this story seems to have any permanence. It should all be so awe inspiring what with the incest, the killings, and the royals but you can't help but suspect that they're just the vaguest pretexts for Zhang to put his actors in yet another costume change. Each set dressing is more over the top than the next that it makes your eyes swim in color overload. But so what, CC wanted to yell at the screen. What is this movie saying about anything, beyond trying to be beautiful? We honestly had no clue as the credits began to roll. So much excess on screen can be surprisingly infuriating.

Posted by karen at January 10, 2007 1:34 PM