Sunday, July 15, 2007

Movie Review: "Curse of the Golden Flower"

Starring Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Lie Ye, Chen Jin, Ni Dahong, Li Man, Qin Junjie
Directed by Zhang Yimou

Official Web site

Having created impressive historical epics such as “House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero,” director Zhang Yimou certainly knows how to craft tales with incredible visual flair. But unlike those previous two films, “Curse of the Golden Flower” is much more style over substance. Ultimately, the story, nor the characters that inhabit it, are worth getting worked up about.

Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li star as the emperor and empress of a seriously dysfunctional family in 928 A.D. China. By the time the story begins, the royal couple’s marriage is already a fairly lifeless entity. Both are in the midst of betrayals – she’s cheating on him, while he’s trying to slowly poison her to death. Meanwhile, the family’s three sons are caught up in their parents’ power struggle, with at least two of them eyeing a chance at the throne. Never mind the fact that one of them is the very person with whom the empress is having her affair (I told you the family’s dysfunctional).

Throw in an attempted military coup within the palace walls, and you’ve got the ingredients to a compelling story. Unfortunately, the individual parts simply don’t add up to a satisfying whole. Part of the problem is that with such a troubled family at its core, there needs to be somebody worth rooting for amidst all the soap opera-ish developments. But alas, this is not the case, as every family member is either underdeveloped or simply despicable (in some cases, both).

The normally charismatic Chow Yun Fat seems too reigned in here, portraying an emperor who has seemingly long since given up hope in his family’s redemption. With the exception of a swordfight with one of his sons in the early portions of the film, he’s given little to do. While Chow Yun Fat seems to underplay his role, Gong Li tends to go the other direction here, playing up the melodramatic aspects of a woman descending into madness. Still, she looks pretty great doing so.

In fact, all of the sets and costume design are sensational, as colors practically leap off the screen. Likewise, some of the action sequences, most of which are filled in the film’s busy third act, are very eye-catching, complete with excellent cinematography. However, there is an overreliance on CGI during the climactic battle scenes that tends to distract and reduce the human drama taking place. Of course, with such an unlikeable clan at its core, the eventual outcome of the family’s infighting seems irrelevant. As there’s really no one to root for, there’s little reason to care who survives. In the end, you’ll probably just be glad to not have to spend the holidays with this family.

Grade: C-
(Rated R for violence.)

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