What’s the old line? Never mind the quality, feel the width? For Zhang Yimou, the man behind martial art — with the emphasis on art — epics such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, it’s becoming a case of never mind the plot, enjoy the imagery. Curse of the Golden Flower is certainly up there with his visionary, visual best. Plot wise though, it’s virtually synopsis-proof and incredibly elaborate. With its crosses and double crosses and mysterious takeovers and assassination attempts, the overriding feeling is of an episode of Dallas dropped into the Later Tang Dynasty.
The sudden return from the frontier of the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) and his second son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou) should be a cause of celebration. He’s home, he claims, to celebrate the Golden Chrysanthemum Festival with his family but given the frosty relationship between him and his wife, the Empress (Gong Li) this seems unlikely. Perhaps then he’s heard rumours that she’s been enjoying an illicit affair with her stepson Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye)? As Wan dreams of escaping this impossible relationship – together with the real love of his life, Chan (Li Man) — the Empress is in failing health but the Imperial Doctor (Ni Dahong) seems more interested in the Emperor’s plans. And then lots of people fight in long, slow, beautifully colour-coded shots. Something like that anyway.
Nobody is quite what they seem, everybody’s got their own agenda and Yimou seems to get to a stage where all the arch acting and dialogue isn’t actually that important. Bugger it, he seems to say, let’s bring in a massive army in golden armour and just keep the eyeballs happy. In terms of scope and scale Golden Flower certainly succeeds, but it doesn’t really engage the mind or the emotions like, say, House of Flying Daggers did. There is clearly a place for such mesmerising visuals — it’s called a ‘cinema’ — but a little less time on the design and little more time spent on script would have elevated the film considerably. Fun but flawed.