Pros: Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat, jawdropping sets and costumes
Cons: sometimes slow-moving, perhaps too much opulence
The one thing that I feel everyone who's seen this movie can agree with, whether you liked it or not, is that it is certainly an experience. Personally, I'm in the yay-camp, but the point remains. From opening to finish, Curse of the Golden Flower takes you deep into a secretive world completely foreign to most of us.
Our story starts with the Empress (Gong Li) being presented with her medicine, a concoction made up of ingredients personally chosen by her husband, which she must take every two hours. Despite the fact that she's been taking the medicine for ten years for her supposed anemia, it doesn't appear to have any affect - any positive effect, that is. Lately, the Empress has been suffering uncontrollable spasms and breaking out into cold sweats. It soon becomes clear that a new ingredient is being added in with each dose, but the Empress is forced to continue taking the medicine as though nothing is wrong. That doesn't mean she’s ready to go down without a fight, however.
Watching the cruelly orchestrated deterioration of the Empress' health is not pleasant, and every time the servants come in to present the medicine for the hour, you want to kick them in the face. But that isn't an option in the world the Empress lives in; the Emperor's word is law, and to defy him means certain death. Eventually the Empress confides in her second son Jai that she is being poisoned by his father, and if nothing is done, she will die. Jai has immense respect for his father, but upon watching his mother dutifully swallow down the poisoned medicine before his very eyes, he vows to help her. And thus we begin our journey toward the upcoming Chrysanthemum Festival, where things will all come to a head.
The story is set in the era of the Tang Dynasty, an opulent time where men were far superior to women and the Emperor was viewed as something close to a god. I'm not sure how authentic the depiction of the palace and the somewhat over-the-top costumes are, but they certainly drive home the point that these are indeed opulent times. The palace itself and most of the costumes are of the gold persuasion, adding to the feeling of lavishness. Receiving the most lavish treatment is of course Gong Li as the Empress, from her lovely makeup to her carefully styled hair to the jaw-dropping outfits she is adorned in. If you can tear your eyes off her whenever she's on-screen, the other characters are also intricately costumed and the palace is beautifully designed.
The Empress and the Emperor are the two characters that really bring this film to life. I don't imagine anyone other than Gong Li could so wonderfully express all the nuances of the Empress' character, and Chow Yun Fat is equally intriguing as the Emperor. The scenes where these two interact are some of the best of the film; so many things are obviously bubbling beneath the surface, but they continue their act as dutiful husband and wife. In particular, one scene where the Emperor summons the Empress to the kitchen and personally prepares her medicine for her is particularly malicious. After she drinks the medicine, the Emperor tenderly dabs a bead of moisture from her lips, and there is a moment where you wonder if there was ever any love between the two at all.
The secondary characters of Prince Wan (Ye Liu), Prince Jai (Jay Chou), Prince Yu (Junjie Qin), and the Imperial Doctor (Dahong Ni) and his daughter Chan (Man Li), are all well-played. Though Jai as a character is probably the most honorable, Wan is much more interesting to me, and his internal struggles of dealing with the pressure of being the Crown Prince, his relationship with the young Chan, and his confusing feelings toward the Empress are acted out very well. There is one scene in particular between Wan and the Empress rather late in the film that really stands out.
One thing that is a little unclear (or else I'm missing something entirely) is whether or not Prince Jai and Prince Yu are the Empress' biological sons; it is stated that Wan is not, but I'm uncertain about the other two. The apparent intimate nature of the Empress' relationship with Wan isn't something to be condoned, but it's easier to accept knowing that they aren't biologically related; with Jai, I'm not sure how to feel. It's obvious that his mother is the most important thing in Jai's eyes, and that Jai is the Empress' favorite son, but I was left wondering if there were romantic connotations to their relationship as well.
There are martial arts included in the film (not surprising, as it's directed by Yimou Zhang of House of Flying Daggers and Hero fame), but it is not the focus of the story. The few scenes are nicely choreographed and interesting to watch, and there ends up being more than a little blood when all is said and done. Of these, the scene that stands out most has to be the less showy, much grittier one in which the Emperor deals with an unexpected betrayal near the end of the film; Chow Yun Fat has stated that he had a really hard time shooting the scene and it's understandable why.
As stated earlier, watching the movie is definitely an experience; the film moves at its own pace and simply lets the story tell itself. This can be a good or a bad thing; sometimes it feels like it's moving quite slow yet moments later there seems to be too much going on. Curse of the Golden Flower isn't perfect, but this intriguing glimpse into a beautiful world tarnished by treachery and deceit is certainly worth more than one viewing.