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Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Curse of the Golden Flower, 2006 - Movie Review

Directed: Yimou Zhang
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Li Gong, Jay Chou, Ye Liu
Running Time: 114 minutes
Score: 2/10

The Wife and I watched this the other night and had to switch it off. We really liked Crouching Tiger and Flying Daggers but this was pretty bad. This review by debblyst.

"Curse of the Golden Flower" can be best described as an apotheosis of overwrought kitsch, hyper-saturated colors and military choreography. Everything in it is big, lavish, excessive, but staged in a clockwork style; every shot spells *money*, *opulence*, "extravaganza", but under stiff control. If you -- like me -- once marveled at Zhang Yimou's visual artistry, refined craftsmanship and story-telling ability in memorable films like "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern", you'll be baffled by "Curse": it's simply inconceivable they were all directed by the same man. After "Hero" and "Flying Daggers", Zhang completes with "Curse" his exhibitionist, rococo trilogy, where the "message" (i.e. power and corruption go hand in hand) gets crushed under formalist grandeur, military fascination and commercial targets.

The colors in "Curse" belong to a sort of Phosphorescent Lollipopland, with blazing goldens, sanguine scarlets, shocking purples and pinks; it feels like a color-blind exam:)) The lighting is so overdone it's flat, sometimes even making beautiful Gong Li look unfavorably photographed. The sets are so overwrought and overcrowded that Hollywood Bible epics of the 1950s look minimalistic by comparison. The costumes, though masterfully executed, are so flamboyantly flashy they often seem to deserve more attention from Zhang than his actors. Oh, and as many reviewers pointed out, there are those anachronistic popping boobs...very distracting:))

The CGI work is painstakingly noticeable and underachieved; the music is maddeningly monotonous and incongruously Westernized. The action scenes are lukewarm and discombobulated -- Zhang is a flat, unexciting fight director: he doesn't know how to shoot or how to edit an action sequence. The plot is even more convoluted than the sets, while the dialog alternates between risible clichés and hermetic symbolisms. The characters are all objectionable: we have no one to root for! The cast is told to over-act: Chow Yun Fat sulks, groans, struggles with his Mandarin lines, squints with his BLUE contact lenses (!!), and combs his goatee with his cool gadget-ring. Gong Li suffers, trembles, cries, suffers, trembles, cries, drinks endless cups of poisoned tea and feels sick all the time (is it the stifling wonder-bra or the smell of the script?). Song pop-star Jay Chou has an interesting presence, but is betrayed by the director, who lingers on his clueless "reaction" shots and thus cruelly reveals Chou's lack of proper training. The closing credits song (which Chou produced, wrote and sang) just proves that bad pop songs exist everywhere. At the end of the day, what IS remarkable about "Curse" is the flabbergasting amount of money spent to tell what is, after all, a huis clos story: all that matters in the plot takes place indoors -- the CGI, the battles, the armies, the ninjas, the fights are pretty much there to satisfy action junkies, justify the stratospheric budget and crush the audience with a paraphernalia of excesses.

Also remarkable, of course, is Zhang's taste for unimaginative, clockwork crowd choreography: thousands of real and virtual extras flow by in rigid geometric patterns with a maniac precision that can only be described as military-inspired. No wonder Zhang has been appointed to stage the opening ceremony at the next Beijing's Olympics (prepare for geometrical boredom): "Curse" serves as his zillion-yuan test for the job.

All of this made me think of how Zhang's substantial, ground-breaking past work has turned into vacuous formalism and establishment-friendly status ("Hero", "Flying Daggers" and "Curse" are hymns to the "purification" of China against corruption and the glorification of the millenarian Chinese military/militia traditions, are they not?). And I recalled his notorious megalomania and authoritarianism (check the documentary "The Turandot Project" by Alan Miller) and his quote saying "My films are an excellent channel for promoting China's culture". And I thought of China's current rise into superpowerdom, and the historical use of the Olympic Games as political propaganda. And I recalled all the talented filmmakers who were used by totalitarian regimes (a regime that practices arbitrary censorship in the arts and the media is totalitarian by any definition) for propaganda purposes, and I thought about artistic and political compromise and alienation..."Curse" is a gigantic soufflé, an exhibitionist, exhausting and escapist mammoth extravaganza made by a self-obsessed, control-freak artist who -- though he states in interviews his "aversion to politics" -- seems to feed on, cherish and serve the very status quo he thinks he transcends.

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