“Curse of the Golden Flower,” Zhang Yimou’s strangest and most troubled film, abounds in hysterical, mannered Tang Dynasty-era palace intrigue and dehumanized CGI battle sequences. Zhang captured a rich wife’s sequestered life poetically in “Raise the Red Lantern,” but a similar sense of isolation in “Curse” turns almost suffocating, as royals tear themselves apart with much actorish emoting along the way. Despite superstars Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li leading the lavish enterprise, pic is unlikely to approach international B.O. numbers of Zhang’s far more vigorous period epics, “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”
The quasi-Shakespearean familial war at the film’s center links “Curse” to Feng Xiaogang’s equally spectacular but more effective “Hamlet” re-do, “The Banquet.” Latter’s fine balance between court drama and martial arts fight sequences is precisely what’s missing in Zhang’s adaptation (with co-writers Wu Nan and Bian Zhihong) of Cao Yu’s 1930s play “Thunderstorm,” in which an ultimately miscast Chow struggles against his nature and Gong is frequently reduced to long stretches of sweaty palpitations.
In 928 A.D., during the conflict-heavy later phase of the Tang period (long a favorite of dramatists and filmmakers), the Emperor (Chow) marches home with his second son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), just before the start of the annual Chong Yang festival. Opening sequence is composed of an utterly confusing montage that only settles down when Jai returns to palace to reunite with his mother, the Empress (Gong), whom he hasn’t seen since he left for the battlefield three years earlier.
The Emperor and Empress’ marriage is in the freezer: He is the oppressor, she, the nervous victim. Complicating matters, the Empress is having an affair with Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), the Emperor’s first son from his previous marriage.
However, Wan wants to run away with Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the Imperial Doctor (Ni Dahong), who’s under orders from the Emperor to give the Empress medicine containing a Persian fungus that will render her insane. Thus relations in this royal family are not merely dysfunctional, but homicidal.
The Emperor’s third and youngest son, Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), tries to be ingratiating to both parents.
When the Empress finds Wan with Chan, Wan pleads for and gets leniency, evidence that the Empress has a humanity that seems to be utterly absent in the Emperor.
Pic develops some fun intrigue when a disguised woman reveals to the Empress who’s poisoning her and with what. The plot thickens when it turns out the woman is the Imperial Doctor’s wife and Chan’s mother, as well as the Emperor’s ex-wife and Wan’s mother.
Ominous meanings emerge in rather murky terms, and the constant barrage of ploys, counter-ploys and revelations are as weighty and elaborate as the lavish, glistening interior decor of the palace (by production designer Huo Tingxiao). Indeed, the webs upon webs of intrigue tilt over the edge of drama into comedy, with viewers’ attention waning as they ponder how makeup artists Man Yun-ling and Liu Jianping managed to make Gong’s lipstick glow, or how long it took hair artists Tam Ying-kwan, Chau Siu-mui and Emily Lin to style the cast’s locks.
While the palace drama is framed by Zhang in a distressingly constant stream of medium and tight widescreen close-ups, the eventual battle scenes are imagined in God-like master shots involving seemingly millions of soldiers. Complaints directed at recent epics like “Troy” for reducing battleground troops to digitized army ants applies here in spades, resulting in turning what should be a moving and suspenseful war between imperial factions into a kind of video game.
The only truly arresting action involves the Emperor’s personal guard of black-hooded soldiers who magically drop by ropes from the sky, yet even this element feels arbitrary.
Zhang’s actors unfortunately emote to the rafters, leading to third-act demos of “acting” that put none of his talented stars or support in a good light. Chow, perhaps the ultimate figure of gun-toting H.K. action, is made to look older and gray here and appears unsuited to the throne. Gong projects fear, but her limited range in the role of Empress and her theatrical excesses look odd on the bigscreen.
As the sons, Chou, Liu and Qin all have moments of great energy, but like nearly everyone else (including the impressive Chen and Li), they’re allowed to overdo it to pic’s detriment.
Lenser Zhao Xiaoding (also on Zhang’s “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” and “Flying Daggers”) opts for a riotous use of colors, but — like the rest of the project — it’s simply too much. Once out of the palace quarters, pic’s reliance on CGI and computerized visuals has diminishing returns. Shigeru Umebayashi’s thudding score is heavy with Carl Orff-like bombast.