Curse of the Golden Flower (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

film_goldenflower_smWhile the production and costume design are brilliant and on the level of Yimou's previous films, Xiaoding Zhao's cinematography is woefully ungraceful compared to the work that Christopher Doyle did on Hero.

 

 

 

 

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Zhang Yimou used to be best known on the international film scene for his fantastic dramatic work, most notably in 1990's Ju Dou and 1991's Raise the Red Lantern. Then, in 1999, he hooked up with the young up-and-comer Zhang Ziyi in The Road Home, and went back to her when he was making the Jet Li-starring Hero, which really broke him through to a bigger audience worldwide. It seems in a way that Gong Li, the actress who starred in both Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, was his muse back in the days he was making richly textured melodramas, and when he eventually drifted into the more American-friendly chop-socky Asian action film, such as Hero or the also-very-successful 2004 film House of Flying Daggers, Ziyi replaced Gong Li in his muse slot.

Now, with his new film, Curse of the Golden Flower, his first high-profile release (in America, anyway) since House of Flying Daggers, he is mixing it up, in that he is making yet another action film of grand set pieces and saturated colors, except that this time there is no role for Zhang Ziyi, and the lead role goes to his old favorite, Gong Li. It's a shame, then, that Curse of the Golden Flower, while a perfectly functional action film, feels particularly uninspired when compared to the glory he achieved in both Hero and House (or Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, for that matter).

Curse of the Golden Flower concerns the sickly Empress (Li), her scheming Emperor (Chow Yun Fat), and their three sons, the latter of whom are all of suspicious motivation with regard to both their affairs and their aiding their ailing mother. This thin setup allows for the maximum number of lazily plotted twists without interfering in the near-constant battling that occurs in the second half of the film, but nobody really comes to these things expecting any sort of deep plot. Mere functionality isn't necessarily a bad thing in this case (I can't say that the plots in either Hero or House of Flying Daggers were much better).

Where the film really starts to dig itself into a hole is in the sub-par handling of its production. While the production and costume design are brilliant and on the level of Yimou's previous films, Xiaoding Zhao's cinematography is woefully ungraceful compared to the work that Christopher Doyle did on Hero (strange, then, that Zhao served as D.P. on House of Flying Daggers, and did a fine job there; Curse is all poorly framed action and crane shots over crowds—seems that Yimou wasn't the only one on autopilot on this one). Also, there are some laughable problems with the continuity editing that kept taking me away from even remotely caring about the characters, or, in some cases, the action.

What Yimou really needs to do at this point is not just cast his old muse in an action film of the sort that he has been making (successfully) for years now, but to either go back to his dramatic work of old or just find a new genre to work in altogether, in an effort to reinvigorate himself. Yimou is one of modern international cinema's best and most reliable directors, so it is really disheartening to see him make what feels like the Hong Kong equivalent to a brainless mainstream studio movie. | Pete Timmermann

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