The Crouching Tiger in Winter
'What family doesn't have its ups and downs?" says Elanor of Aquitane in "The Lion in Winter." Some family's more than others. Take the royal family in Zhang Yimou's "The Curse of the Golden Flower." The Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) is poisoning the Empress (Gong Li). The Empress has slept with her step-son, the Crown Prince. The CP is sleeping with the daughter of the Emperor's physician--who's providing the poison to the Emperor for the Empress. And the daughter of the physician, she's sleeping with the Crown Prince, too, and, well, it just gets a little messy at this point. And instead of King Henry's family-war of precisely chosen words, this family battles with ever-increasing sizes of armies, internecine plots and even ninjas who call to mind the flying monkeys of "The Wizard of Oz" albeit with razor-sharp scythes, and throwing weapons.
A technical element that reminds of "Wizard" is the stunningly ravishing (in all senses of the term) color photography that hasn't been seen since they stopped using the three-color-dye Technicolor process (or since Dorothy clicked her heels together and returned to sepia-toned Kansas). Zhang, even more so than in "Hero" and "The House of Flying Daggers," suffuses the screen with a sumptuous chiaroscuro of reds, lavenders and golds--this is truly one of the most beautiful films to come out this year,* and it more than lives up to Zhang's past flashes of spectacle.
Dramatically, though, the film falls a little flat--setting up a confrontation that gradually escalates from hand to hand combat to eventually rivalling the endlessly epic battle set-pieces in the "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy (and as the armies just kept getting bigger and bigger, it brought to my mind an old Chuck Jones cartoon where Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd engaged in a frantically escalating war: from knife to pistol to rifle to rolling cannon to BIG rolling cannon). After an extended bloody battle sequence, the movie ends where it began, only with a lot fewer characters and the biggest clean-up operation the Forbidden City has ever seen. Needless to say, there's going to have to be a new planning committee for next year's Chrysanthemum Festival.
"The Curse of the Golden Flower" is just too beautiful and detailed to be appreciated on the small-screen, but too inconsequential to pay full-price. Find a cheap matinee and enjoy the colors.
* I rushed out to see "The Curse..." because of the past intimate, intricate sound design of Tao Jing, hoping that he would surpass the masterful job done on "The House of Flying Daggers." Alas, although the design is a marvelous skein of chimes and movement, the best sounding film I've heard this year is "The Fountain."