Moriarty’s Review Of Chow Yun-Fat And Gong Li In Zhang Yimou’s CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER!
Published at: Dec. 15, 2006, 4:40 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Now that I’ve finally reviewed the rest of the films I saw at the AFI Fest, I want to reflect on one film in particular, the closing-night gala screening, the world premiere of Zhang Yimou’s CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER.
Hats off to the festival programmers. If you’re going to close a fest, this is how you do it. Zhang Yimou was actually at the screening at the Cinerama Dome, along with his two stars, Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li, and they came to the afterparty on the roof of the Arclight afterwards. I’ve met a lot of movie stars over the years, but there’s a whole different charge to seeing Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li in person for me. There’s something about the way they carry themselves that reminds me of Old Hollywood, when we used to build our movie stars bigger than life.
The film itself is a sumptuous beautiful epic on the surface, but at heart, it’s an intimate story about a family gone sour, rotting from the inside due to ambition and mistrust. It’s Zhang Yimou successfully marrying the sensibilities of his early films like RAISE THE RED LANTERN or RED SORGHUM or QUI JU to his recent epic interests in films like HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS. There’s a strong vibe here of Shakespeare via Kurosawa, a la THRONE OF BLOOD or RED BEARD, and everything’s played at a sort of heightened theatrical pitch that I found engrossing.
So why have reviewers in publications like VARIETY and THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER rejected the film so completely in their reviews? Why is it running a 43% on Rotten Tomatoes right now? Beats me, but it’s like we saw completely different films. I was drawn into this world from the very first frame, and I think it’s the most rewarding of Yimou’s recent films. The soul of this royal family is split right down the middle between Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat) and Empress Phoenix (Gong Li), and these two performers bring the full weight of their respective careers to bear on these roles. Although the characterizations aren’t simple, it’s safe to call Chow Yun-Fat the villain of the piece, an uncommon occurrence in his career. He’s not some moustache-twirling cartoon, though. He’s determined to exert his will, no matter what, for the sheer sake of exerting it, and that drives him to the most terrible and arbitrary lengths in his dealings with his Empress.
Gong Li has aged beautifully over the years in front of the camera, and she taps into a deep sadness for her work in this film. From the very beginning, she’s crushed under the thumb of her husband, forced to take regular doses of a medicine that he personally formulates for her. She’s been taking it for years, and her “condition,” which remains unnamed for the full running time, seems to stay the same no matter what, never improving but also never getting worse. For this Empress, royal life is a prison, and the palace is a claustrophobic hallucination. This really doesn’t look like either of the director’s recent martial arts epics. It’s far more stark. There’s an ugly undercurrent running from the very start of the film, always threatening to shift from subtext to text. Something’s changed. Suddenly, Gong Li is dying. She can feel the change, knows that her husband has finally decided to kill her. She sees no choice but to put things in order, finally dragging everything, every awful secret, out into the light of day for the entire family to see.
That’s the ticking clock of this battle of wills, a husband and a wife bound by secrets and sorrow as much as by anything resembling love, head to head with each other as the pain finally becomes too much to bear. There are other people involved, of course. The Emperor and Empress have three sons, and all three of them have complicated relationships of their own with their parents. One has been away, banished for a time. One is the baby of the family, coddled and spoiled. One is the eldest, facing up to the fact that he is not worthy to be his father’s heir. There’s a savage beauty to the way this family tears itself apart, and Zhang Yimou’s adaptation of Cao Yu’s play is pointed, prickly, difficult by intent right down to its devastating final image. So often, costume epics are cinematic sleeping pills by design. They’re meant to be like a ride through a wax museum, and the last thing they do is provoke or challenge. Not true here. Zhang Yimou delivers on the big action beats that make this a true epic, and he got my pulse pounding every time.
But what haunts me about this movie, even a month after I saw it, is Gong Li, finally reunited with the filmmaker who made her a star in the first place, tearing into this role with a regal presence that masks a warrior’s spirit. Her work elevates a juicy melodrama into something akin to art, and it's her work that will bring me back to this film as soon as I can see it again.
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles