Curse of the Golden Flower is interesting, to say the least. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding's work isn't as precise or elegant as Chris Doyle's in Hero, and while the action director Ching Siu Tung has the chops to rival Yuen Woo Ping (he directed A Chinese Ghost Story, and did the action choreography for Peking Opera Blues, among many others), Zhang still doesn't quite know how to photograph his choreography--too many cuts, in too confusing a fashion (give me Ronny Yu's direction in Fearless--still the finest martial-arts action film I've seen in recent years).
I think Zhang Yimou knew this, and tried to compensate by going berserk on the costumes and sets--Gong Li's gowns rival Princess Amidala's in ungainliness, and her nails seem to have been done by the same manicurist that does Ming the Merciless; Chow Yun Fat's headgear could have been King Midas' underwear, and you don't want me started on his throne, a hemorrhoid sufferer's literally wet dream.
Much of it is lush, of course, but I thought the hot pinks, neon greens and radioactive blues were a bit much--think of a supermutated Szechwan restaurant grown to monstrous proportions, or Ridley Scott's Blade Runner set in the Tang Dynasty, only with less restraint. I'm not kidding, you have to see this; it's the kind of production design found in multimillion dollar adaptations of cyberpunk graphic novels, only these are for the most part real sets, not CGI-generated nightmares (when they are CGI, they look patently fake). Maybe my favorite comment on the sets claims they look as if they had been done by someone 'channeling Liberace' (on hallucinogens, maybe).
All that aside, it does get compelling, in a The Lion in Winter meets Married With Children meets Henrik Ibsen way; the revelation scene--where mistress confronts wife confronts husband confronts children, ugly truths are revealed, and a brother gapes at his sister in mute horror--should go down in history as a great camp classic.
The basis of the story is Cao Yu's classic Thunderstorm, which single-handedly established modern Chinese 'spoken' theater (as opposed to traditionally 'sung' Chinese opera). Cao Yu (who believe it or not played Nora in a production of A Doll's House--make of that what you will) was critical of communism, but seeing as how the play portrays the bourgeois as inbreeding decadent bastards, the Chinese authorities have wholeheartedly adopted it as one of their own, which may be the reason why Zhang is able to get away with startling moments and imagery under the guise of all that imperial (read; bourgeois) criticism.
It's the scenes of rebellion that makes the film worthwhile: with monumental sets (is that the Forbidden City doubling as a Tang palace?) and literally thousands of extras--the kind of human extravagance today's Hollywood can only dream about--Zhang fashions a startling re-enactment of the Tiananmen Square massacre, complete with tanklike structures inexorably crushing heroic dissidents. He follows it up with a startlingly efficient cleanup job, then by the most ghastly of aftermaths: an invitation of all concerned, rebellious and repressive alike, to sit down together at dinner. It's a sequence of such massive violence and subsequently profound perversity it takes your breath away--I remember a line from James Goldman's play where Eleanor of Aquitaine declares "we are the source of corruption!" but never has both source and consequence been so comprehensively and vividly realized.
Those closing sequences alone justify the film's existence, wipe away all (well--most) suspicions of Zhang selling out (forgiving him his awkward dabblings into the wuxia-pian genre along the way) and establish the man as potentially the finest, arguably the most ambitious, definitely the nuttiest impresario of large-scale spectacles in the world today.
Yep--the world today. Ridley Scott can still do the occasional superproduction, and I hear James Cameron is going all-out digital for his next 200 million dollar bonfire of vanity, but I submit Zhang, with his house style of old-fashioned spectacle cannily extended by CGI effects (still clumsy, but working on it, working on it), backed by the might of the world's most vital economy, will for better or worse (even now I see both possibilities) be the filmmaker to beat in the future. That's my prophecy, right there--you heard it from me first.