Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang Yimou, 2006)
Mandarin Title: Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia
Hourly announcements by uniformed men of astrological indications and accompanying significant virtues drown the whispered plots and familial scandals being discussed behind closed doors. The emperor (Chow Yun-fat) prides himself of his ideal family; the model family for the rest of Tang dynasty China. Three sons (the crown prince Wan (Ye Liu), middle child Jai (Jay Chou), and youngest eager beaver (Qin Junjie), a lovely wife (Gong Li), and the memories of a previous wife (and mother of the crown prince) --- it's a lovely family portrait. However, this seemingly perfect ancient Chinese family may in fact be related to the dysfunctional suburban families of this cinematic generation. The emperor is secretly poisoning his wife's hourly medicines with Persian black fungus; the eldest son is having an illicit affair with his stepmom while also shagging the court doctor's lovely daughter (Li Man); the second child is plotting a coup d'etat; and the third son feels too giddy and satisfied to be really satisfied with his place in the world.
It's a labyrinthine ploy. Endless dialogues and revelations inch their way to our cinematic consciousness. Once the pattern is established with daring strides of make-believe narrative, we witness something I can accurately compare to a Jackson Pollock painting --- the film feels like paints were conveniently thrown to a canvass and luckily, the questionable experimentation worked.
Zhang's film does not only feel like a Pollock painting, it also looks like one. The marvelous sets, the intricately created costumes, and the astounding amount of extras commissioned to play a body in a crowd are testaments to Zhang's flourish and filmmaking capabilities. Yet unlike the color-coordinated stories of Hero (2002), or the emotionally apt visual palette of House of Flying Daggers (2004), it felt like Zhang foregone all notion of restraint. Curse of the Golden Flower is afflicted with psychedelia; watching it sober from the effects of drugs (although I haven't tried doing so) might take away the substance from Zhang's rationale in making the interiors of a majestic Forbidden Palace-esque monument look like the inside of a pack of melted M&M's chocolates.
Why exactly Zhang would lash out aesthetically with Curse of the Golden Flower remains to be a mystery to me. Probably, because he can. Despite the film's overly extravagant, too-beautiful-it's-a-bit-ugly, insanely colorful depiction of Shakespearean melodrama, there's a sense of artful pageantry to the excesses of Zhang's cinema. Overflowing bosoms, ritualistic formalities of court life, golden courtyards --- all these just relate to Zhang's visual pastiche and believe it or not, the aesthetic madness is quite addicting.
And the summation of Zhang's excesses is the climactic coup d'etat, where crimson colored soldiers fight it off against a horde of black-clad guardsmen against the backdrop of golden chrysanthemum carpets which are occasionally being sprayed with dark red splashes of blood. It's appartently a mixture of CGI and a cast of thousands of extras; but onscreen, it looks ridiculously stunning (even slightly political; the sequence did remind me of Tiananmen riots). Excessive it may be, but Curse of the Golden Flower is nothing short of an achievement.