[Screen It]

(2006) (Gong Li, Chow-Yun Fat) (R)

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Drama: Family turmoil, treachery, and treason threaten to destroy a 10th century royal Chinese monarchy.
It's the early 10th century of China's Tang Dynasty and The Emperor (CHOW YUN-FAT) and his second son Prince Jai (JAY CHOU) have returned, following Jai's long absence, to the palace on the eve of the chrysanthemum festival. While the Empress (GONG LI) is happy to see her son, she's far less so regarding her husband. That's not only due to their marriage being a loveless one, but also because she's carrying on a secret love affair with his son from a previous marriage, Crown Prince Wan (LIU YE). However, Wan is also having a fling with Chan (LI MAN), the daughter of the Imperial Doctor (NI DAHONG) who's slowly but surely poisoning the Empress' daily medicine following the Emperor's orders.

While the Empress may seem doomed, Prince Jai -- who's unaware of the poisoning -- is concerned about her well-being, unlike young Prince Yu (QIN JUNJIE) who's jealous of being third in line for the thrown. When the Imperial Doctor's Wife (CHEN JIN) -- who has a past ax to grind with the Emperor -- informs the Empress of the plot to kill her, that sets into motion a series of events that threaten to undermine the monarchy as well as the lives of the entire royal family.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Following the hijacking of the martial arts genre over the past several decades by the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal and a number of music video directors who unwisely tried to blend rap music mentality into such offerings, it's good to see that the Chinese have reclaimed such films as their own.

From "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to the likes of "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," the films and their filmmaking have made leaps and bounds from the chop-socky days of old. While I'm still not a big fan of wire-fighting and other such gravity-defying, stunt techniques, the films are so much better than their predecessors that one can forgive a few unrealistic bits.

That said, it will be intersecting to gauge viewer reaction to the latest such picture, "Curse of the Golden Flower." Yes, it has a bit of wire-fighting, and like other such films, it boasts lush production design. But writer/director Zhang Yimou has also thrown in Shakespearean themes, melodrama bordering on soap opera theatrics, and what can best be described as a Wagnerian sort of grand opera.

No, there isn't any singing, but all of the pageantry, bombast, and spectacle are clearly and gloriously on display, and often threaten to overwhelm both the overall production as well as the viewer trying to take it all in. Some may find that it goes a bit or even way too far over the top. While I side more with the former assessment, I did find all of it rather engrossing and certainly visually sumptuous to behold.

From the beginning that shows the pomp and circumstance of royal life in the early 10th century Tang Dynasty, we're shown -- via stylishly coordinated cinematography -- the highly regimented routines and ceremony of the palace. Thus, when we learn that the Emperor (a heavily made-up Chow-Yun Fat) is poisoning his long-suffering wife (a terrific and radiant Gong Li), we immediately know trouble's brewing and that the pressure build-up will soon disrupt most everything it touches.

Throw in various affairs, a long-standing vendetta, known and unrealized incest, treachery, treason and more, and the stage is set for Shakespeare meets afternoon soap style fireworks. Zhang and co-screenwriters Wu Nan and Bian Zhihong keep things moving at a good clip, never allowing the increasingly soap opera style plot and theatrics to slow things down or derail the building momentum toward familial and palatial conflict and inevitable disaster.

The filmmakers also don't hold back in symbolizing both the royal excess and overwrought qualities through the ornate production design and vividly reproduced color palette. The latter not only pops off the screen, but also thematically represents the taught emotional rage that's about to burst forth all over screen.

As far as the performances are concerned, Chow-Yun Fat tempers his usual onscreen charisma in favor of foreboding malevolence, and Gong Li (sporting enough corset-style cleavage that threatens to overflow from this film and fill several others) near perfectly delivers her operatic performance of the doomed but determined wife. Supporting performances by the likes of Jay Chou, Liu Ye and Li Man are good as well as appropriately nuanced for this sort of tale.

While martial arts fans might bemoan the relative lack of that sort of action, what's present works (notwithstanding the aforementioned wire trickery) and some epic style battles are present, similarly symbolic of the pressure cooker having finally blown its proverbial lid.

Probably not for pure action aficionados and likely too overwrought for those seeking realistic drama, "Curse of the Golden Flower" is as pretty as the chrysanthemums that fill its signature and titular festival. Yet, its mixture of various genre elements makes it more of an unlikely floral arrangement where sharp thorns and invasive vines coexist with the rest of the vibrant and pretty colors. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed December 11, 2006 / Posted January 19, 2007

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