Wilting Flower

For all its bold color, this Chinese imperial saga doesn’t have much kick

Mike D'Angelo

It doesn't help that Golden Flower's narrative, which clearly aspires to Shakespearean grandeur, plays like an episode of One Life to Live. Set late in the Tang dynasty (A.D. 928), the movie first introduces us to the Empress (Gong Li), a high-strung martinet allegedly suffering from pernicious anemia; once an hour, her attendants bring her a special tea that serves as medicine, which she dutifully if imperiously guzzles. Very much beknownst to her, however—I've always wanted to say "beknownst"—her husband, the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat), has been poisoning her medicine for years, apparently despising her just enough to want her dead, but not so much that he isn't willing to take his time about it. It's never quite clear why the Empress willingly submits to this murder-by-degrees—but, then, her judgment needs work in all kinds of ways, since she's having a clandestine affair with her stepson (Liu Ye), the Crown Prince. Of the other two princes, one (Jay Chou) remains loyal to the Emperor, while the other (Qin Junjie) acts as a feeble peacekeeper. Other secrets emerge, as does the Crown Prince's birth mother; all that's missing is a long-lost identical twin who's undergone gender-reassignment.

If you've seen the film's trailer, you might wonder why you should even care about any of this. Isn't Curse of the Golden Flower another visually ravishing martial-arts epic, in the tradition of Hero and House of Flying Daggers? Zhang does serve up one sensational duel (though the excitement is tempered slightly by our knowledge that it's merely a playful joust between father and son), and the aforementioned battle sequence, with its digital army of thousands, will certainly impress the more-is-more contingent. But what distinguished Hero—the best of these three films by several orders of magnitude—was the degree to which Zhang pushed its wuxia-inspired kineticism into the realm of pure abstraction, so that it was less a story than a pictorial essay on the inherent limitations of classical Newtonian physics. Flying Daggers beat a hasty retreat into far more conventional territory, and now Golden Flower proves even more clumsily literal, indulging its characters with long, operatic speeches and tremulous close-ups. The film asks us to perceive them as people, not just as bodies in motion. It's a terrible mistake.

It's also a real disappointment for those of us who've waited 11 long years for the reunion of Zhang Yimou and Gong Li, which by rights should have wielded the nostalgic force of Carmen Maura's appearance in Volver. Gong's strength as an actress is her terrible stillness, which is something that even Michael Mann, who cast her as a drug cartel's chief of operations in Miami Vice, seems to understand. Asking her to shout and storm and swoon only cheapens her—though she still comes off better here than does Chow Yun-Fat, an even more phlegmatic icon who always seems terrifically ill-at-ease without a pistol in each hand. In general, there's altogether too much acting and not enough dynamism; for all the histrionics, it's the movie itself that seems anemic.

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