Image B Sound A Extras D
starring Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Liu Ye
screenplay by Zhang Yimou, Wu Nan, Bian Zhihong
directed by Zhang Yimou
by Walter Chaw I recently had the opportunity to see for the first time the cut of Zhang Yimou's virtuoso Hero prepared for Yankee viewers, complete with the subtitles and framing cards slapped on by American distributors. Before now, the only contact I'd had with the film was through a region-free DVD from Hong Kong that preceded the U.S. theatrical release by a couple of years. (After buying the rights to it, Miramax, you'll recall, decided to sit on it until such time as its unleashing wouldn't somehow interfere with timeless masterpieces of misguided schlock like Cold Mountain.) Anyway, I was appalled. The extent to which Hero has been dumbed-down--the insertion of "our country" for a term that means, in Mandarin, "beneath the sky" drums up this weird nationalistic gumbo at the end where, before, it was sober and idealistic--manages to paint Zhang as the worst kind of toad. There's an animated map at the beginning now, I guess to show the great unwashed American moron that there is land outside the range of purple mountains majesty, while much mystical bullshit about "over two thousand years ago" mainly obscures the fact that Hero takes place well over two thousand years ago. I feel a lot of anger towards what's been done to one of the best films ever to come out of the Mainland to make it more suited for white consumption, both because of the sacrilege and because whoever's responsible has a lot of answering to do for how far they've undersold the intelligence of Western audiences. I finally understand why a lot of people in the United States didn't think much of Hero: the version I saw was a Zhang Yimou picture, whereas the version most in this country saw was a Miramax picture.
I mention this only because my "first" screening of Hero roughly coincides with the DVD release of the conclusion to the loose trilogy that it began, Curse of the Golden Flower. If Hero is about nationalism and the very Asian resolve to equate history with mythology and House of Flying Daggers is a return to Zhang's claustrophobic gender/sex satires, then Curse of the Golden Flower marries Zhang's withering political allegories Ju Dou and Red Sorghum to the poetics of the fall essayed in the underestimated Shanghai Triad--the last time before now, as it happens, that Zhang paired with his muse, Gong Li. That it doesn't work very well is almost beside the point for auteurists following this wuxiapian cycle, and indeed there's profit in reading these pictures as a roadmap for Zhang back to the smaller, oft-banned pictures that made his name as the most instantly--and easily--championed of the Fifth Generation Chinese directors. There's only so long that someone like Zhang can spend in the wilderness of big-budget spectaculars before his instincts begin to reassert themselves, not just in little pictures like Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles but in the middle of all that gloriously empty bombast as well. By far the worst of the three films, Curse of the Golden Flower might nevertheless be the most beautiful (testifying to an inverse proportional scale that holds true more often than not), its long halls shot in stained-glass primaries and its fields of gold almost orgiastic in their unapologetic excess. There's not a shot here that isn't fevered--and, perhaps predictably, it's overwhelming; then deadening; then common.
Wash away the lurid colour and what remains is a Greek drama involving incest, fratricide, courtly intrigue, poisoned tinctures, bastard heirs, and bloody reprisals. The Tudors had nothing on this Tang Dynasty, presided over by Emperor Ping (Chow Yun Fat, still struggling with his Mandarin), the wife (Gong) he's slowly poisoning with a brain-devouring fungus, his feuding sons Jai (Jay Chou), Wan (Liu Ye), and Yu (Qin Junjie), and hordes of retainers, physicians, courtesans, and so on. Seems someone's accidentally sleeping with their half-sister, someone else is purposefully sleeping with her stepson, and still someone else has a secret about the Emperor that will permanently unhinge the youngest son, who appears to be something of a brat besides. Lots of screaming and bodice-ripping is interspersed with a few grand fight sequences that, by this point in the genre's development cross-culture, are almost boring for their familiarity. I'll maintain that the West has yet to learn how to film a swordfight with the grace and kineticism of this Yuen Woo-ping-inspired fight choreography (though Yuen's absence from this film is nonetheless noticeable--it's like someone choreographing Fosse who is not Fosse), but without much at stake in Curse of the Golden Flower, it all starts to veer into the silly.
What holds firm is the idea that this government is corrupted by dirty tricks and ugly secrets--that Gong's Empress might represent the will of a people oppressed and slowly poisoned by a mind-destroying brew; the film is incredibly bracing in its open sedition. I'm a little bit surprised that the Chinese didn't ban it: earlier in his career, Zhang's portrayal of the ruling class as a fat, petulant infant earned him the door. (I do wonder if Zhang didn't parlay his new status as the architect of the Beijing Games' opening ceremonies into a blind eye.) More, the final battle where a revolutionary army assembled behind the idealistic Crown Prince Wan is mowed down in a courtyard decorated for a looming festival--the blood of the aftermath quickly washed away like a magic trick, sweeping a pile of corpses under the carpet--marks Curse of the Golden Flower as possibly the first mainstream Chinese representation of the massacre at Tiannamen Square. That few if any stateside reviews of the picture have mentioned this adds fat to the fire that this desperate sacrifice of the young and idealistic was, indeed, utterly futile, swept under history's carpet like the film's most disturbing sequence depicting mass, machine-efficient forgetfulness. The picture's epilogue, almost Orestiean in its dinner-table bloodlust, underscores the idea that the fire of change has been extinguished and the ashes scattered, the naming of the Empress "Phoenix" something more bitter than hopeful. The sacrifice of the nameless, off-caste hero in Hero for the sake of a culturally unified China finds itself at a dead end in Curse of the Golden Flower.THE DVD
Curse of the Golden Flower arrives on DVD from Sony in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that I found rather disappointing given the overwhelming beauty of the source material. I had to strain my eyes during the third act's nighttime attacks and chases--something I didn't do in the theatre--and though the colours are vibrant, I couldn't help but feel as though they didn't so much pop as just sit there. What should by all rights be rapturous instead feels perfunctory. It's a beautiful woman without makeup--yeah, of course it's gorgeous, but wait 'til you see it dolled-up. Look to the fields of Chrysanthemums in the Forbidden City courtyard: they're an indistinct pool of gold. Better is a DD 5.1 soundmix that makes good and heavy use of the discrete channels. Bass is booming and the action sequences bristle with atmospheric effects and sometimes-surprising explosions. A short making-of featurette called "Secrets Within" (22 mins.) is generally dispiriting stuff, with Zhang spending altogether too much time talking about his adherence to period detail. It sounds like something delivered with the proverbial gun to his proverbial head and so it should be read. An even shorter clip from the LA Premiere (3 mins.) is a red-carpet junket clip that does nothing to edify the proceedings. Originally published: July 25, 2007.