Saturday, February 17, 2007

Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou, 2006)

Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou, 2006)


I'm not sure if we can call Zhang Yimou a great filmmaker, but in the '80s and '90s he was certainly a force to be reckoned with. For director Chen Kaige he shot "Huang tu di" (Yellow Earth, 1984), a film that announced to the world the presence of the "Fifth Generation" of mainland Chinese filmmakers; three years later, with "Hong gao liang" (Red Sorghum), "Ju Dou" (1990), and "Da hong deng long gao gao gua" (Raise the Red Lantern, 1991) Zhang helped establish the house style of the Fifth Generation--at once old-fashioned in its embrace of melodrama ("Ju Dou" owes a plot twist or two to "The Postman Always Rings Twice") yet new in its utter lack of cynicism (the unabashedly romantic flavor of "Hong gao liang's" love scene); voluptuous in its use of colors, shapes, textures (the dyed cloth in "Ju Dou" filling the screen with ribbons of fluttering scarlet, purple, gold) yet somehow austere in intent and ultimate impact (repeated shots of the compound's imposing rectangular floor plan in "Da hong deng" emphasizing the heroine's imprisonment). The 1999 "Yi ge dou bu neng shao" (Not One Less) subordinated that gorgeous visual style to the story of a young teacher struggling to keep her class of poor student peasants together. The result, I thought, was a film more persuasively moving (thanks to its countryside grit and simplicity) than any of his earlier efforts.

He's struggled ever since, sometimes in interesting ways: "Wo de fu qin mu qin" (The Road Home, 1999) is a romance told in flashbacks, as the lovers' son arrives from the big city to bury his just-died father (I liked it well enough, save that the mother seemed a tad too self-indulgent); "Xingfu shiguang" (Happy Times, 2001) felt like a reworking of Charlie Chaplin's "City Life" (blind girl given the illusion of a better life by an equally poor benefactor) and suffers in comparison (you also couldn't help but feel sexually predatory overtones--all these middle-aged men, surrounding a helpless blind girl--in what Zhang strenuously tries to present as an innocuous situation).


Paul Martin said...

The Road Home was my introduction to Zhang Yimou, screening as part of Melbourne's Nova Cinema Silk Screen screenings of Asian cinema. I found the film poetic and quietly accomplished.

Then came the martial arts extravaganza's, that I found to be more and more vacuous. Visually stunning, yes, but emotionally unengaging. Last year I saw Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (Qian li zou dan qi) and found it a return to the form I enjoyed in The Road Home.

It's an interesting contrast - small emotional stories and large colourful martial arts extravaganzas. I've not seen Curse of the Golden Flower (not released here yet), but it doesn't interest me. I find these films of his to be poor man's copies of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, even
'borrowing' some of the actors. They are visually stunning, fabulous stylised use of colour, but completely unengaging.

I look forward to his next human drama.

Noel Vera said...

I agree; small-budgeted Zhang is much superior to big-budget Zhang. But I'd pit even big-budget
Zhang against any number of Ang Lees, who are more notable for good taste than for any passion in filmmaking. Crouching Tiger I think is a travesty of a martial-arts movie, lifeless and "subtle" in a soporific way. Give me Hero or Flying Daggers or Curse any day.

Like I said, I'd watch Curse for being an adaptation and trasonposition of a famous Chinese play, for the complex bordering on ridiculous melodrama (which has its own brand of intensity), and for those five or so minutes near the end, when the film evokes Tianenmen Square and its aftermath.