Sunday, January 14, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower

I saw Curse of the Golden Flower last night, for once deciding not to read any reviews until the morning after. So I can say I came to the conclusion on my own that it's essentially a domestic drama, but then so are Hamlet and Macbeth, to which it's already been compared by more than one critic. That's the easy part. Unlike those two plays, it's a melodrama of domestic abuse, not unlike some of the stories aired on episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims. Aiming a little higher, given the incestuous entanglements at the root of the story, Oedipus Rex is perhaps a more apt comparison. I found Peter Debruge's comments especially apt, that "[t]he melodrama here is of a sort seldom taken seriously outside Shakespeare's tragedies, and the final body count rivals Hamlet in its royal bloodletting. But as Western analogies go, Curse achieves an emotional fervor more in keeping with ancient Greek mythology than Elizabethan theater." (Peter Debruge, Miami Herald, Friday, January 12, 2007). The comparison I didn't think of, but should have, is to Tennessee Williams (see Ethan Alter, Film Journal, Sunday, January 14, 2007). It is, of course, domestic abuse staged as spectacle, an opulent, operatic, epic CGI-enhanced Battle Royale. Now when I go to see a new movie by Zhang Yimou, that 's the sort of thing I expect to see, and each time I wonder how he can possibly outdo his last spectacle in color, scope, and martial kinetics.

I have to admit that movies such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon have a profound effect on me. None of these movies is perfect (okay, Crouching Tiger is nearly), but so far I can't get enough. That these movies come with a heaping spoonful of emotion, both repressed and expressed, is a big plus for me. It helps if the players can handle it, and everyone in this movie does a fine job, with some superb acting from Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li, excellent performances by Liu Ye (Eldest Son), Jay Chou (Second Son), and the rest of the supporting cast. Unlike some, I also find myself captivated, rather than bored, by a strong dose of ritual and ceremony; like any rythmic device, like drumbeats, these can be used to enhance the movement and emotional impact of the story. So, without giving up to much, what did I find less than perfect about Curse of the Golden Flower?

Like almost any movie of this scale and length, it could have benefited by being a few minutes shorter. I consider that a universal cliché to be mentioned and then forgotten, unless one is completely lacking in patience or attention span. Some have complained that there were not enough martial arts, which I find ridiculous, and in any case beside the point. If you have that problem, stay home with your Xbox. Some have complained about the lack of reference to any context, historical, geographical, or social, outside of the palace; I think there's something to that, although it's not a fatal criticism, by any means. The Royal Palace is huge, and the royal retinue could populate a decent sized city anywhere else in the world; I thought that the overheated, smothering atmosphere within the palace walls was an ironic point that would be difficult to overlook. In addition, that the thousands of servants and soldiers residing in the palace to support the luxurious lifestyles and ruling order of the Emperor and his family were depicted as anonymous entities with no stories of their own to tell was in itself part of the story. I found myself trying to comprehend what it could have been like to be part of such an enormous mass of humanity−to have led one among so many disposable, mechanized lives, taking place within the confines of a walled city, recruited for such a narrow, singular purpose? The point, I think, is not that the movie should have tried to provide answers, or that there are no answers, but that the question was emphasized in this particular case by leaving it dramatically unanswered. Against this background, besides the Emperor's family, only the Royal Physician and his family have real dramatic roles to play, and their stories are more than sufficiently dramatized; interestingly, they are the only players, except for the Emperor and his Second Son, with scenes that take place outside of the palace. And incredible scenes they are−when I see views like this of the Chinese countryside, I want to go there! And it is out there, in the cinematically gorgeous, quiet country province to which the Physician's family has been exiled, that the extended martial arts climax of the movie darkly, abruptly kicks into high gear.

Bizarrely, perhaps, what struck me most negatively was the ending, by which I don't mean the way the story ended, which was fine; my problem was with the musical segue from the last scene into the closing credits. It was about as weird and jarring as it gets, and actually drove me from the theatre prematurely, without my bothering to read the translation of the song. There may have been a point to it, but if so I then have to admit, after all, to a cross-cultural disconnect that I found insurmountable. Perhaps someone can explain the significance of this song to me (and I don't mean just provide a translation); maybe it's a trivial point, but I'm open to suggestions.