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Much that glitters, little that's gold
on 15 July 2009
Curse of the Golden Flower is a step up in budget from Zhang Yimou's Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but it's a step back in terms of drama: much that glitters, little that's gold. Set in a palace where everything is a spectacular and highly regimented ritual done on an epic scale, whether it is servants dressing by the hundreds or preparing food and medicine, it focuses on the kind of royal family who make the Plantageneats in The Lion in Winter look like the Waltons. He's poisoning her, she's planning a coup against him and the Crown Prince has gone from an affair with his stepmom to one with his half-sister... Yet for all the poisoning and plotting the problem is that it's rather dull. It never descends into outright boredom, but it doesn't particularly engage for most of the first two thirds.
As usual with Yimou, the moral of the tale is ambiguous: on one level it could be don't go against the natural order, no matter how unfair it seems (father knows best, even if he is poisoning mum), on another it could be know your place no matter how inexplicably cruel you may find the ruling regime. Or it could just be a good old-fashioned tragedy with unhappy endings all round. On a more dramatically successful film maybe the ambiguity wouldn't be so niggling, but with such huge resources thrown at it to such little effect, you feel that it should all add up to SOMETHING.
True, a lot of money has been visibly lavished on the film, but it rarely feels wisely spent. That the corridors of the palace look like they've been designed by a Bombay stallholder with unlimited funds, more garish than opulent, make many of the interiors look more a monument to bad taste than a glittering façade to hide the corruption within. The wonderfully conceived use of colour and design of Hero and House of Flying Daggers here gives way to visual overkill. Forget the golden flower, this definitely suffers from the curse of too much CGi in the final battle as the addition of an increasingly unfeasible number of perfectly synchronized digital extras completely swamp the human element the scene needs to succeed. When the CGi golden army attacks the palace it doesn't really impress as much as it should - the CGi is good enough, but it's also too controlled and uniform, lacking the feeling of spontaneity you get with real extras. Maybe it's just that the look is so overexposed that digital extras seem too much of a cheat to impress the way that going to all the trouble of using the real thing did. After all, when so much is done in the computer, what physical human effort is left to admire?
Nor does the individual fight choreography impress as much as in Yimou's previous films. There is even some surprisingly clumsy editing of mismatched shots in the `smaller' scenes that make you wonder whether Yimou wants to draw attention to them or simply doesn't care enough to finesse them. Perhaps it's telling that the film's most visually effective moment is the massive co-ordinated cleanup operation after the battle as the bodies are dragged away and the palace is quickly restored to normality and that only the film's final scene has the kind of real emotional power that the rest of the film could have done with.
It seems oddly significant that despite the epic scale, only 8 of the cast are credited while the crew, designers, costumers and computer technicians are billed at great length: people really don't seem to be the film's priority. That's sadly reflected in some of the performances. Perhaps it's because the once prolific Chow Yun Fat has worked so little this century that it's genuinely surprising to see how much he's visibly aged as the Emperor. While this is used to some effect, we rarely see why he does what he does, which tends to render him more of a shallow villain when the circumstances really merit. It's certainly hard to see him as the wronged party when his revenge is so ruthless and calculated. But sadly most of the performances are decidedly one-note while the cast wait for their big scenes, with only the female cast making much impression (the film is good on the submissive role women were forced to accept). Yet as good as Jin Chen is as the Emperor's wronged first wife, it's Gong Li who really impresses, and how. As the Empress trying to hold onto her sanity long enough to depose her husband before his poisoned medicine turns her into a living ghost she's remarkably powerful without ever overstating: it's the small details rather than the grand gestures that really count with her. Unfortunately as her stepson and lover, Ye Liu overacts the sensitive angst almost enough to make Nicholas Tse look subtle, yet somehow in their scenes together Gong Li still manages to keep them from sliding away into pure melodrama. Sadly, her efforts are never quite enough to make up for the film's shortcomings.
It's not helped by Universal's problematic UK DVD. The burnt-in subtitles are tiny and the first chapter is `locked' so you can't go back to catch a line you may have missed while squinting to make out the text. Nor is the transfer particularly good, the fact that there's not nearly enough detail in many shots becoming more apparent the larger the TV screen you watch it on. The extras are disappointingly US-centric - a reasonable but slightly misleading American making of documentary is alright despite bizarrely subtitling even Chow Yun Fat's English interview into English (!), but much of it is repeated on the two very short featurettes on Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li, while the two brief trailers are for the USA release, both avoiding dialogue scenes lest the audience find out it's in a foreign language.