I have just been to the Beijing premiere of Zhang Yimou’s new film, Curse of the Golden Flower. (Zhang Yimou is the director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers.) This is allegedly the most expensive film ever made in China, and it shows. Furthermore, it is the first time Zhang Yimou and Gong Li have worked together in over 10 years. Also joining the game is Hongkong action star Chow Yun-Fat and Taiwanese pop-singer, first-time actor Jay Chou.
The story is set in the Forbidden Palace in 9th century, the Tang dynasty. It revolves around the dysfunctional imperial family, plotting and counter-plotting against each other while trying to maintain a facade of family unity. The cold-hearted and brutal emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) has a chilly relationship with the empress (Gong Li). Although the empress does not consider herself sick the emperor makes her drink medicine every other hour, with her health steadily declining. The crown prince has a secret love affair with the imperial physician’s daughter and wants to leave the palace in order to be with her. The second prince (Jay Chou) is concerned by the empresses failing health and her obsession with embroidering golden chrysanthemums. The third prince is all but forgotten. As the plot unfolds, action ensues as dark secrets are revealed and the private armies of the members of the imperial family fight it out with each other.
Gong Li truly is a wonderful actor, and it’s great to see Zhang Yimou and her working together again. The result is, not surprisingly, splendid. Chow Yun-Fat is obviously also a very experienced actor and does a great job as the emperor. Before watching the movie I was very worried that Jay Chou (obviously cast for his popularity as a singer and not his acting skills) would ruin the movie, but I am happy to report that he speaks relatively little and isn’t an horrible actor, albeit not a great one either. I feel that the acting of Liu Ye (the crown prince) also deserves mention, not bad at all.
As you can expect from a Zhang Yimou film, it is a treat for the eye. A replica of part of the Forbidden City was built for this movie, and it is truly grand. The outer palace is covered with yellow chrysanthemums and the inner palace is clad in bright, beautiful colors. The costumes are all very beautiful, the emperor and empress are literally covered in gold. My sympathy for the women in this movie, who all had to wear push-up costumes showing a lot of bosom. A few sequences of the movie that are set in the mountains are also very impressive. The music (which feels surprisingly un-Chinese) of course also helps to add to the grandness of the settings.
The action sequences are different from Hero or House of Flying Daggers in that they are less stylized and feel more real. A group of assassins who dress in black and fly through the air with the aid of grappling hooks are seriously cool. An army of 10,000 men in golden armour is also very impressive, given that they are not computer generated but actual people (there are a lot of people in China). There is also a level of brutality that is completely new for Zhang Yimou in that the violence isn’t just violent, at times it’s also deeply emotional and personal.
Seeing this movie at the premiere here in China is special to me since I liked Zhang Yimou’s movies long before I came here and might even attribute some of my interest in China to him. Sitting in a cinema full of Chinese people was interesting. First, everyone laughed when Jay Chou was first shown. Jay Chou is a very well known face here and seeing him in armor is obviously very funny to a lot of people. Also, there is some humor in this movie that I would never have picked up without the help of a cinema full of laughing people. At first I didn’t get it, but after thinking for a few minutes it came to me (much too late to laugh). It’s all word play, so it just doesn’t translate into the English subtitles.
Needless to say, I like this movie. Although it is not perfect, I have nothing in particular to complain about. I hope you like it too.