Zhang Yimou is seriously off his game with the utterly ridiculous “Curse of the Golden Flower,” a new epic that feels like “Hero” meets “The Lion in Winter” meets “Peyton Place.” The film is worthless as a serious work of art, but it may offer the jaded viewer a surplus source of MST3K-inspired wisecracks.
The imperial court of 10th century China is hopping with intrigue. The Emperor and his favored second son, Prince Jai, return after being away for years (just what they were doing is not certain). But their homecoming is anything but jolly: the Empress is in ailing health, despite being on the receiving end of a medicinal regimen prescribed by the Emperor and his toady Imperial Doctor. The Emperor’s first son, Crown Prince Wan, is having a bit of nooky with the Imperial Doctor’s cute daughter.
But Crown Prince Wan stirs up more-than-maternal feelings from the Empress, who is really his stepmother (the prince’s birth mother died when he was an infant – or so he was told). Then there’s Prince Yu, the youngest son, whom no one really likes. The Empress gets irritated by this dysfunctional family and decides to stage a coup during the annual Chrysanthemum Festival. Amidst bloodshed, crushed chrysanthemums and a few indelicately revealed family secrets, the royals finally get to state what they really think of each other. (And you thought the Windsors were a nutty bunch?)
With this film, Zhang seems to be confusing the Tang Dynasty with Aaron Spelling’s “Dynasty.” Bad taste in decor and costuming are matched with bad taste in storylines. Everything from incest to long-simmering romantic urges to mysterious figures with access to hidden knowledge drop in with a proverbial clunk, reverberating throughout the overstuffed palace with no concern for logic and subtlety.
Chow Yun Fat’s malignant Emperor is so hammy that it’s a wonder he doesn’t pause to twirl his mustache in delight of his villainy, while Gong Li’s Empress seems to have been doing a bit of time traveling on the side – how else does one explain make-up worthy of Warner Bros.-era Joan Crawford or low-cut gowns worthy of Anna Nicole Smith’s reality show in 10th century China? Pop star Jay Chou plays Prince Jai like a pop star: all pouts and posing, with nary a crumb of genuine emotion to share.
But even without the zany cast, Zhang never gets his groove. Roughly one-third of the film is devoted to people strolling through the endless halls of the imperial palace; you’d think this was an homage to “Last Year in Marienbad” with its endless hallways that lead to nowhere. Even the wuxia action scenes, which Zhang brought to new artistic heights in “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” are a joke. The obvious use of CGI effects and the clumsy fight choreography make the action a dull swirl of commotion. Honestly, you can find better fights going on in an elementary school playground.
Oddly, “Curse of the Golden Flower” is based on Cao Yu’s stage play “Thunder Storm,” which is set in the 1930s and focuses on the disintegration of an industrialist’s family. It’s a shame that Zhang (or perhaps his Communist Chinese producers and censors) didn’t allow him to adapt the original source rather than ruin it with this noisy, nonsensical mess.