Directed by Zhang Yimou
Written by Zhihong Bian and Zhang Yimou (based, loosely, on the play Thunderstorm by Cao Yu)
With The Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou completed a trilogy of sorts, that had begun with Hero in 2002 and continued with House of Flying Daggers in 2004 (and had nothing to do whatsoever with Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles in 2005), and I'm not sure if this was a totally intentional thing that he did, spending the middle of the 00s working almost exclusively in enormously-budgeted wuxia films. (Golden Flower was, at the the time of its making, the most expensive Chinese film ever, though it didn't hold the record long.) Nevertheless, intent crept its way in, and despite the air of dismissiveness that Zhang's blockbuster ambitions have garnered from the kind of critic who considers themselves intelligent but nevertheless needs to have a film's themes couched in the one-to-one terms of a realist drama with no swordfights, the thing that I've never even seen remarked upon is that all three of Zhang's mid-aughts wuxia epics were co-written by the director, and how unusual that was for Zhang. Until his most recent three films, starting with Shadow—another wuxia movie, how about that?—his mid-aughts trilogy represented the only screenplay credits in his filmography. Seems, then, that his swordfight movies should be his most personal films, the ones he cared about above all and the truest auteur efforts; taken in combination with the other currents in Zhang's career, I'm not sure I could interpret Golden Flower as anything else besides agonizingly personal.
This does not, necessarily, also make Golden Flower his best wuxia film, though I would put it over Hero and have entertained the thought it's better than Flying Daggers; the biggest reason it's not is that Golden Flower is required to shift, with a half-hour to go, between Zhang and co-writer Zhihong Bian's gaudy reimagination of one of the foundational texts of modern Chinese theater, Cao Yu's Thunderstorm—already an allegory about Chinese society, albeit contemporaneous to its 1935 publication—to a barely-veiled and surprisingly self-loathing allegory about Zhang Yimou's own, specific role in Chinese society, and it grinds some gears to get there, though even then, I still found that transition less lumpy the second time I watched it. And so probably the biggest "problem" it retains is, ironically, that its wuxia bona fides are not especially strong, not to the extent they're an "afterthought," but a list of top ten Zhang action scenes on their technical merits would not include a single example from Golden Flower unless you were forcing it. And that especially includes the big battle at the end, even though, if you get what it's after (and Zhang would not admit that it's what it's after, but Zhang also lives in China), it's so despairing and nihilistic you could cry.
But that's 115 minutes from now. For the moment, we're thrown into the final act of a story that began long ago, as the palace servants announce the return of the King (Chow Yun-Fat). Accordingly, even though it's the middle of the night, the Queen (Gong Li) is expected to greet her monarch with appropriate ceremony. This means that almost the very first image of the film—okay, it's the twenty-first, but as part of a swiftly-cut opening montage of horses galloping and servants preparing, it also comes within the first minute and a half—is a brazen and meaningful self-quotation that reintroduces us to Gong Li, once Zhang's muse (and, for most of that time, Zhang's girlfriend), now reuniting with her director for the first time since concluding their professional and intimate relationship in 1995. Adjusting for the different aspect ratios, it's the exact same shot as the image that opened up their most beloved collaboration, Raise the Red Lantern, fifteen years prior, but the imagery of this shot and its subsequent shots is now reversed in every affective sense: in that film, Gong Li is young and pitiful and poor, and she's attempting to put a brave face on selling herself into concubinage, which she manages only well enough to not actively emote while tears involuntarily stream out of her eyes; in this, Gong Li is a full-grown woman in command of her emotions, if she even has any anymore, resplendent in the glam rock stylings of her royal station (if this were an American movie, you'd call it "orientalist" immediately), her decolletage smooshed upwards by the tight under-sash beneath one of the low-cut dresses that are such a highly salient aspect of Jessie Dai and Chung-man Yee's costume design that it would be ridiculous to pretend I didn't notice it, and slathered in so much gold that her bottom lip is painted with accents of gold. We'll see weakness in her soon enough, but there's no hint of that yet, so our first and abiding impression is of the girl she was, now older and graduated to mastery, yet still trapped and in an even more gilded cage.
Anyway, the King doesn't even show up, as he's stopped off at the royal inn to rendezvous with his middle son Jai (Jay Chou), so the Queen, and the eldest and youngest of her three sons, these being Wan (Liu Ye) and Yu (Qin Junjie), stayed up for nothing, and their reunion with their husband, father, and monarch is rescheduled for breakfast the next morning. In the meantime, the dynamics of this royal family resolve themselves: Jai has been sent to the frontier as a test of his mettle to see if he might be worthy of the throne; the currently-anointed crown prince, Wan, is in fact a product of the King's first marriage, and this has been his excuse for why he's allowed the pseudo-incestuous affair between he and the Queen to go on, though he has lately become desperate to end it, for he's fallen in love with one of the Queen's handmaids, Jiang Chan (Li Man). For her part, Chan, the daughter of the court doctor (Ni Dahong), has been the unwitting vehicle for the fungal poison that's lately begun to be slipped into the Queen's hourly dose of anemia medicine, at the orders of—who else?—the King, though (and I hate to spoil a fascinating non-spoiler) whether that's because he knows she's screwing his son, or because he knows she's plotting a rebellion with the generals, or simply because he hates her, we don't ever quite find out.
It proceeds from there, and I've lost count of how many times I've seen it referred to as "Shakespearean," which is easy and apt, but in its examination of the sheer fuckedness of its royal family, it lays out its distinct scheme at breakfast when the King quizzes his family on the importance of order in the cosmos. All that order ultimately comes back to him, a square in the circle, now tested by the perversion of every Confucian relationship the screenplay can throw at him—wife against husband, son against father, younger brother against older (though it turns out the guy you really have to look out for is the squirrelly one who wasn't even invited to the power play), and in every instance, the ruled against their ruler. (There's a detail hardly stressed in the screenplay, that the King became the King only because he rebelled, too, long ago; but now his power so thoroughly justifies itself that this isn't even offered as a serious argument against his legitimacy.)
It's courtly melodrama taken to obscenity, and bordering on the operatic, a twisted reflection of the ideal family animated by lively and overwrought performances; Liu is damned impressive just for managing to almost be a third lead, perhaps because he gets the juiciest material of the below-the-marquee cast, required to freak out roughly half a dozen times over the course of the film at each successive revelation, and he manages to vary his reactions with satisfyingly-diverse mixtures of fear, shame, and existential horror. And yet maybe it was inevitable that it would be Gong and Chow's movie, for the most part simply because they so completely dominate the screen with their sheer movie star presence. Which is not to say they're not doing fine technical work: Gong has the business of slowly, painfully dying over the course of the film, which she and Zhang exploit to the fullest possible showboating extent, but there's a core of irreducible dignity in the Queen that's amazing to watch remain steady even while she's uncontrollably shaking or wailing in grief; and Chow is the best, humanizing his tyrant monarch with unmissable hints of regret and isolation, even sorrow and madness, but only so that he's all the more terrifying in the unperturbed cruelty of his revenge, culminating in a final scene that gave me honest shivers, somehow more on the second watch than the first. There's a conscious rejection of all humanity in the denouement of Chow's performance that's genuinely frightening to watch.
So that's some very great screen acting elevating the proceedings, though it was probably to some degree always actor-proof (the metatextual implications of Gong's participation, strictly speaking, not being part of her performance). This is a film that, ultimately, is about the overpowering force of its imagery in furtherance of its themes, serving, in a sense, as the extreme logical endpoint of Zhang's experimentation with color and choreography over the past decade and a half of his career on screen and in live theatrical performances alike. The King's unidentified capital is, I strongly expect, like nothing that ever existed, and it is therefore worth making a few notes on the "history" in this historical epic: for starters, if you've ever seen it and you're an Anglophone, you probably wonder why I keep saying "king" when the subtitles say "emperor," and in truth I somewhat prefer "emperor" as the title for this unchallenged king of kings. I can't say why Zhang and Zhihong chose "wang" instead, except perhaps to further push Golden Flower into an abstracted neverwhen and untether it completely from any actual imperial dynasty. The American version takes the opposite tack and tells us very specifically that it's A.D. 928 under the Tang Dynasty, but, by the same token, no Tang Dynasty existed by 928 (a Tang faction did, but that hardly squares with this). I imagine that's accidental. Yet in either case the effect is similar: it never happened, but it's nonetheless true.
But surely it never happened in a setting as grandly decadent as this. Golden Flower is a bracing and intoxicating visual experience, and very big, with something along the lines of a full-scale palace complex built for the film, a vast universe unto itself, with a pair of courtyards, the inner one decorated with a sprawling field of yellow flowers and centered around a tall, terraced tower that serves as good, instructive Confucian symbolism during family meals. Zhang gets a lot of mileage out of these courtyards, both in terms of a place where thousands of extras can exist side-by-side and a place that can feel post-apocalyptic when it's just one woman running screaming across it alone. But even the imposing, colorful exterior cannot prepare you for the obliteratingly prismatic complexion of the palace interiors; it's like the view from inside a kaleidoscope, or like a castle built out of Jolly Ranchers left out in the rain. Sometimes the phantasm of the endless rainbow-colored corridors reaches the legitimately psychdelic. With this, Zhang finally got what he said he wanted to do with Hero: color unattached to any meaning, and in a sense it is the opposite of the single-hued sequences of that and Flying Daggers, with all the colors blasting into your eyeballs all at once for the whole film. Golden Flowers had one production designer, Tingxiao Huo of Zhang's previous wuxia films; it had five art directors, and good God, that checks out. Even Shigeru Umebayashi's score is overbearing, all heavy chants and loud doominess.
But the purpose of it all is unmistakable: there is, first and probably foremost, the sheer grandiosity of it, so beautiful that it almost seems grotesque, the apotheosis of tasteless, gaudy luxury, emphasized by the golden raiments of the royals, and on the eve of the Chrysanthemum Festival where everything boils over, Zhang and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding frame the King's family like a repulsive parody of a magazine spread, with faintly-disgusting lens distortion and the actors seeming to pose for cameras that aren't there. More than that, however, is the evocation of the power it must take to acquire the gold and jade and artisans to create such a gorgeous montrosity; and, finally, there is something about the way the light works with it, and the way the architecture creates so many emotional impressions simultaneously, all of them negative. The sheer too-muchness of it conjures claustrophobia and the baroque partitioning of space within it conjures alienation. Yet the translucency of almost every wall, and the half-openness of the spaces sealed off by flimsy screens and blinds, creates a world where privacy is always contingent, and there persists the feeling of being always watched, because you always are. The tragedy of the film, in its operational sense, is that everyone already knows everything, and the only thing still in question is if you know they know.
They'd be hard-pressed not to know, given the armies of servants, coordinated like flocks of birds, that bustle through the palace at their chores, every task seemingly broken down into its most fundamental constituent parts for the very sake of having more people do it, therefore accruing more prestige to those having it done. Zhang's editor Long Cheng has a tendency to pace his cuts fast, particularly as so much of the film is people barreling down rainbow hallways, and this heightens what's already a disorienting setting; but the film is sectioned-off by several interstitials where a group of servants, usually just shadows seen on a wall or obscure silhouettes manifesting through panes of stained glass, calls out the hour; it's a literal onscreen ticking clock (maybe my all-time favorite iteration of that device) but it's also a reminder that for all the ornamentation, we're inside a machine, its innumerable moving parts existing to serve a power accountable to nothing but heaven.
That machine can break down, but it has robust measures of self-regulation, as is discovered when the Queen and her conspirators enter the palace, and the war movie busts out. This, as I said, is probably the film's weakest stuff, and the action elements of this action-fantasy film unfortunately get worse at scale. There are individual gestures in the King's defense of his position that are exceptionally well-done, and bring a real theatrical relish to the violence of a family function that turns into an orgy of various -cides (and even more incest than you'd have thought!), but it's probably not the best sign that my favorite fight in the movie is a father-son sparring match in full armor that's explicitly stakesless, but Zhang thought they'd look rad if they resembled giant robots and sparks flew off their swords. (I mean, he was right.) The action is by and large still good, but there's also an unshakeable sense that the story has already stopped, and the large-formation battle scenes with their unbelievably bad and silly tactics is just the grind before the credits.
But that might be exactly what Zhang was going for, and now we find the bleeding heart of the film. Without revealing the precise contours of its events, this is, as I've said, a tragedy, akin to 1984 if 1984 were written from inside Oceania. So, for all our (anti)heroes' striving, nothing changes, and the mechanical fighting even intensifies that sense of pointlessness (the augmentation of the fighting with not-remotely-there CGI, not so much). But let's just say it: it is incredible that this film managed to get funded, that this film managed to get through censorship, and that every piece of writing on it does not note "Zhang Yimou made a movie that openly depicts protestors being run down by siege engines that are the medieval equivalent of a tank." And nothing, absolutely nothing, changes. For a man accused of doing propaganda with Hero... well, he wasn't doing propaganda now.
And yet, of course, he was: Golden Flower arrived in the middle of Zhang's very biggest projects, a segment of the closing ceremonies for the 2004 Athens Olympics and the whole opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the latter of which he directed in collaboration with Lt. Gen. Zhang Gigang. It's a beautiful, unobjectionable celebration of Chinese culture, though it's insular and, in its way, itself a gaudy display of tyrannical might.
There is something chilling about how this film reflects those lovely, sweet-natured Olympic celebrations: the bodies are all cleaned up and disappeared, and even the broken flower pots are replaced by the King's legion of faceless automatons, so the ceremony can erase what just occurred. There is something heartbreakingly hopeless about the way the Chrysanthemum Festival goes on as planned, in a place where thousands perished in a futile struggle, already forgotten. There is something, though I know not what, to Gong Li, Zhang's collaborator in his earlier, more literal and more frequently-banned films, now cast as the righteous rebel and a mother in need, and there is probably, if you really looked and wanted to map these characters to Zhang's psyche, something in each of her children, the lover, the warrior, and the monster. Maybe I've got it all wrong, I don't know the man, but it strikes me as confessional art in the form a grand blockbuster, something only the likes of Cameron or Spielberg (that is, the greatest filmmakers in the world) ever manage otherwise. But it's also the confession of someone who feels like a traitor. It's still a blast, I want to be clear; but it is unbearably great because it's unbearably sad.