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Monday, December 25, 2006

Zhang Yimou's CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER is a movie about a dysfunctional family

Curse of the Golden Flower poster

If you intend to watch Curse of the Golden Flower (满城尽带黄金甲), the latest film by Zhang Yimou, don't expect this to be a martial arts film. There's no high-flying wire-fu that you've seen in Zhang Yimou's previous fares like Hero or House of Flying Daggers (both films more well-received in the West than the East, I personally liked the former, but really dislike the latter). Adapted from a 1934 play, 'Thunderstorm' by Cao Yu, Curse of the Golden Flower is more period drama (with a little bit of fighting, and a really large-scaled, spectacular-looking battle scene in the end) set during the 10th century about the most dysfunctional Royal Family ever.

Gong Li in Curse of the Golden FlowerIt's really more like a soap opera, but with really awesome production sets and lavish eye-popping costumes (lots of, ah, corset-clinched cleavage shots... film's been nicknamed in China as Curse of the Golden Corset, with people claiming that the cleavage shots leave a deeper impression than the battle scenes. Even so, it's currently smashing box-office records with the highest 3-day gross ever, maybe it'll even challenge the record of all-time box-office champ Hero).

Anyway, watching this film in Malaysia is painful because, for some strange reason, we got the CANTONESE DUBBED VERSION in our cinemas. Yes, while the rest of the world gets the original Mandarin version, Malaysian viewers will have to suffer through the sight (and sound?) of Gong Li speaking fluent Cantonese in a low raspy voice, Jay Chou with a manly deep voice (the exact opposite of his actual high-pitched voice) and Chow Yun Fat sounding like some random old hag. Bummer. And while the voice actors were adequate (still somewhat stilted and unnatural), my inability to actually evaluate their performances (I was curious about how intense Gong Li would've sounded in the original version, or whether Jay's line-delivery was wooden, or whether Chow Yun Fat had any improvements in his Mandarin since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) greatly diminished my enjoyment of the film. Darn.

Curse of the Golden CorsetThe most expensive Chinese film to date (budgeted at US$45 million), Curse of the Golden Flower, like this year's The Banquet by Feng Xiaogang (which I watched on DVD the night before seeing Golden Flower) is another member of the Asian Cinema genre (started by Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), a visually spectacular gigaproduction featuring a cast and crew from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China (and the composer is Shigeru Umebayashi, who was responsible for the soundtracks of Wong Kar Wai films In The Mood For Love and 2046) with aspirations to conquer Asian box-office (it will, despite the controversy), and Oscar recognition (mmm...), and oh, acceptance from Western audiences. (after all, seeing Asians flying around kungfu-ing each other seem to be more acceptable than an actual realistic depiction of contemporary Asian culture and life).

The Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) is slowly poisoning the Empress (Gong Li) after finding out that she had been sleeping with her stepson, the Crown Prince Xiang (Liu Ye). Refusing to go down without a fight, the Empress plots rebellion with her doting son, the second prince, Prince Jie (Jay Chou), during the Chong Yang festival. And then, there's also the youngest prince, Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), whom nobody liked. The Empress is also utterly displeased that Crown Prince Xiang had been having an affair with Jiang Chan (Li Man), a servant girl, also the daughter of the Imperial Physician. Lots of backstabbing, political intrigue, angst, and some incest were involved in this film.

Chow Yun Fat in Curse of the Golden FlowerThere are no bad guys or good guys in the film, no one sympathetic to root for or unlikeable to root against, everything is presented in a detached manner for you to watch so that you can form opinions of your own, you'll either be drawn in (like you're drawn in by a train wreck) as you watch the characters become increasingly homicidal towards each other, or you'll be too bored by the lack of fighting to pay attention to the intrigue. It's an uncompromising film.

Acting-wise, Gong Li stands out as the Empress (er, and I'm not referring to her costume), and I think in this film, she shows how much more natural she is in a role like this compared to Zhang Ziyi (who had a similar role in The Banquet). Chow Yun Fat was pretty charismatic and badass in certain scenes and slow mo shots. Jay Chou turned out to be a decent actor, for a pop star, (he was good in Initial D, but I always felt that the role in Jay Chou in Curse of the Golden Flowerthat film was tailor-made for his inexpressiveness) as he got to display more range of emotions. I'll take him over F4 anytime. Unfortunately, I personally think that a more experienced young actor, like, say, Nicholas Tse, in this role would've elevated the film to greater depths of emotions since Prince Jie, compared to all other characters, was supposed to be the most sympathetic one of all, just that he was never developed much due to his lack of screentime.

I wasn't really blown away by this like I was by Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero, but at least I liked this more than the disappointing House of Flying Daggers, and this is definitely not as horrifyingly horrible as The Promise, and not as snicker-inducing as the unintentionally funny The Banquet. Don't take this film so seriously and you'll enjoy it more (like I did with The Banquet), look deeper and you might even interpret the ending as a political barb of the Tiannanmen incident.

By the way, I like the song Jay Chou composed for the film 'Chrysanthemum Flower Bed' (菊花台). Check out the music video (I am amused by the lack of Chow Yun Fat in the entire music video).

Music video of Jay Chou's Chrysanthemum Flower Bed, ending theme of Curse of the Golden Flower

Other reviews:

Lim Chang Moh gives it 3 out of 4 stars and calls it the 'Parade of Bouncing Boobs'

Sebastian gives it a 7 out of 10 and believes this is film is a show-off thing by the Chinese as a prelude to the 2008 Olympics.

GreenCine Daily's roundup of both positive and negative reviews of the Curse of the Golden Flower.

The Visitor thinks that the music video is even more emotive than the movie itself (I agree)