Monday, January 15, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang Yimou, 2006)

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.


Anonymous said...

Gong Li Gorgeous. That is all.

Your Evil Twin Brother said...

Zhang Yimou as this century's greatest impresario backed by the greatest emerging economic superpower?
I admit wherever Zhang is in his creative growth arc, he hasn't reached his limit, that's for sure. We'll certainly see more surprises from him in the future.
In the land of navel-gazing, "Curse" has expanded in theaters but its total take has gone down, battered by "Stomp the Yard" and that Ben Stiller museum movie.
Worldwide box offices often turn what are considered duds in the US into hits, but there aren't many news media that emphasize this. "Curse" did gangbusters in China (what a surprise). I think it will do well elsewhere.
I think Hollywood needs another rude awakening on how the box office outside their navel may be more important than their own box office.

Noel Vera said...

Evil twin: seems to me only the media has that problem. The studios know their bread is buttered on the foreign side; that's why they push their movies so aggressively overseas and why Jack Valenti kept pressuring other countries to lower their trade barriers (the latest victim being South Korea).

anonymous: what you said.

Tuwa said...

I liked Zhang Yimou's early films but have been mostly unimpressed with the last ones: they all seem to start to go a bit wrong plotwise and never recover, instead falling back on beautiful cinematography and silly Hollywood cliches. I haven't seen the new one yet but I'm sure I will at some point.

Another subject entirely: at this thread at Girish's site you mention your fondness for Romero's Day of the Dead. I just watched it (twice, actually) and would love to hear what you think about it.

Noel Vera said...

Tuwa, pretty much agree on what you say, but if we're going to have beautiful cinematography and knockout production values tacked on to an admittedly silly story (that I submit, had a potent punch for about a minute there--you can probably guess which minute I'm thinking of), no one's doing it better than China at the moment (I do miss Chris Doyle at the lens, tho).

As for Day of the Dead--what to say about it? Considering its production history--Romero having to scale back the script to do the film he wanted--I think he managed to do something beyond what he originally intended. It's No Exit, only with a bloodbath finale, his most intense, most extreme pressure-cooker drama, where everything is pitted against each other--intellectual vs. thug, military vs. civilian, man vs. woman, man vs. inexorable fate. It's Romero's Dr. Strangelove, his most apocalyptic statement.

Land of the Dead actually would look a bit redundant, if it wasn't for the statement made about America vs. the rest of the world (a diminution of man vs. the end of the world, but still electric in its relevance). As is, I just think Land is a terrific film, one of the best that year; it's not better than Day.

It's Savini's hands down best work too, I submit.

Tuwa said...

Day was a very interesting film for me, not least for Bub. What an audacious move, having such a sympathetic character alone among the others.

I still haven't seen Land, though it's high on my list. Maybe this weekend.

Noel Vera said...

Land will repeat the idea of progressive zombies, though with less impact. What's really interesting is the parallels between Land and the occupation of Iraq.

Tuwa said...

Yeah, I saw it this weekend. Liked Bub much more than Big Daddy, liked what Romero did with zombie intelligence in Day much more than in Land. I wonder if a fifth is in the works; the conclusion to this one didn't seem to conclude much.

Noel Vera said...

I agree with you re: Land vs. Day. I just wonder why--maybe because it's more moving as a hint, a suggestion, cloaked in a mad scientist's experiments? Maybe because Bub, unlike the smarter zombies in Land, showed an emotion--affection, perhaps love (incidentally, I hear the actor tha plays Bub is a very handsome guy)?

If there's a fith, it'll cover a whole other sociopolitical landscape. Why I'm not writing Land off is because I think it gave a deft summary--not to mention satire--of the present one.

Tuwa said...

I think that might be it: all I saw from Big Daddy was rage; from Bub I saw affection, puzzlement and awe (at the music), anguish, and then rage. I think Bub's character was developed better, though Big Daddy's intelligence was established much earlier in the film and (I think) we were led to expect much more from him.

I haven't given up on Land, though it's probably my least favorite in the series.

Noel Vera said...

It's probably my least favorite too. That said, I think Romero towers over all these newfangled newcomers--Hostel, Saw, what-have-you. He has something to say, and he says it with force, humor, with, style, and--should I say it?--restraint.

Tuwa said...

I've yet to see Hostel, Saw, or any of the new gruesome horror films. I don't go for splatter much, for whatever reason; I prefer films which seem to have something to say and can say it with intelligence.

That may be more a reflection of my prejudices against the films than it is a reflection of the films themselves--I'm told Rob Zombie's films are good (but I've taken that recommendation with a Dead Sea's worth of salt since it came from the same person who recommended the Wayans brothers' Little Man).

Noel Vera said...

I've seen em, and while I like spatter films (is why I like Romero) I like them done well--there are actually standards for these things, I believe.

Zombie's movies--well, I thought House of 1,000 Corpses was DOA; The Devil's Advocates is a vast improvement, which means it's actually watchable, but nothing I'd lose sleep over. I don't think you've missed much.

Tuwa said...

Hm, in that case I may continue to take a pass on Zombie's films.

Aside from Romero, who do you favor in the genre?

Noel Vera said...

Gore or shock? Gore I'd say the usual suspects--Romero, Cronenberg, Argento and Fulci are masters, with maybe the director who did Wolf Creek the most interesting newcomer, and most recent being Fruit Chan (his Dumplings--the feature, not the omnibus short--is excellent).

Shock I'd go for Michael Hanneke. Not too crazy about Takashi Miike or Gaspar Noe or Park Chan Woo.

I don't know if I'd consider Kurosawa Kyoshi shock--he's more like a contemplative horror filmmaker, but he has his moments.

Tuwa said...

Thanks for the recommendations. Into the list they go....

Noel Vera said...

Ow, did I foget one of my favorites? Have you seen anything by Stuart Gordon? Erotic, hilarious, profane, with a camera that often hovers over a character's shoulder like a free-floating anxiety, ready to show us whatever he's looking at.

He's what Roman Polanski might be like if he used Tom Savini in his movies; I recommend Re-Animator, From Beyond, King of the Ants, Dagon, even his segment of Masters of Horror (Dream of the Witch House I think is the title), and I hear Edmond is very good.

Tuwa said...

I've only seen Gordon's Reanimator. It was gory and laced with a dark humor. Interesting work.

Anonymous said...

tertiary system, that's definitely this film's point. Whatever that means