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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)
(2020 Reissue)


Starring: Chow Yen-Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Qin Junjie, Ye Liu, Dahong Ni, Man Li and Jin Chen
Distributor: Fabulous Films Ltd / Fremantle Media Enterprises
RRP: £19.99


Certificate: 15
Release Date: 14 December 2020

Yimou Zhang, leading director of China’s Fifth Generation of Filmmakers, the first wave after the Cultural Revolution, (others in this group are Kaige Chen and Jinzhan Zhang) was already known to the world for Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). The year is 928 AD,  Europe is dark. China is bursting with life, colour and culture.

Star Chow Yen-Fat is the Emperor and charismatic leading lady Gong Li the Empress. Curse of the Golden Flower represents a rapprochement between Zhang and Gong Li after a breakup both personal and professional. After this movie they went back to hating each other. Zhang gave Gong Li her breakthrough  Red Sorghum (1988). Sometimes success is unforgivable. That the two work well together is undeniable. That they’re not working together in these years is a loss to all of us.

Personal relationship is a chief factor in contemporary culture as signalled by Zhang’s adamant declaration of having no interest in politics, only in personal issues and relationships. He stands apart from millennia of Chinese tradition hallowing the group or collective. For him the crowd epic is a panorama for the individual and the individual’s handling or mishandling of relationships in the family is the calibration of lasting human value. The movie is drawn from a classic traditional play from the 1930s by Yu Cao and loved enough to garner the highest budget the Chinese film industry had seen to date ($46 million). Yet Zhang reveres Kurosawa for his statements of humanistic individualism on frugal budgets.

On the eve of a great festival, golden Chrysanthemums fill the Imperial Palace Court Yard. The Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) shows up without preceding fanfare or indeed any announcement at all. The Empress and royal court are under duress. Something’s afoot and it’s not good. Illicit love affairs, malevolent alliances and serpentine intrigues threaten his hold on the throne. Plus the Emperor’s own skeleton in the closet may threaten him more than anything else. Add to this a massive attack on the Empire by armoured hordes and the fate of the Empire is anything but certain, let alone the survival of the royal family.

It’s a very easy narrative to follow.

The intrigues? Oedipal love, slow death poison (that good old Persian black fungus), royal marriages perverted by power, flirtatious finger fellatio, mendacity with a smiling face. The action? Don’t expect balletic air flight, it’s all gravitationally and acrobatically believable, mass battles understandably seen step by step. Like a stunning text book. Outstanding is the black-clad air force which pitches down cable tow hooks to be slid down on gripped bamboo handgrips bearing warriors with battle scythes. And most amazingly, the entire palace court yard with a bloodbath just minutes old, corpses removed, swept clean with brooms, thousands of new chrysanthemums replacing blood spattered ones, new carpets unrolled, all in time for the great festival to begin: “Heaven, Earth and Man unite; Fortune and Prosperity to all; Midnight, the Hour of the Rat; Let the Chrysanthemum Festival begin.”

The colour palette is the best ever put on film. Yes, I know what I just said. When you upgrade from 2K to full fledged 4K in both player and panel, or better yet a true 8K system, Curse of the Golden Flower is your standard of measurement. The same is true for judging all action pictures, past, present and future, for kinetic ingenuity and, this is most important, hear me carefully, immediate physical apprehension. The acting is superb.  A film course could use this one picture for its total lexicon. Mise en scene is beyond post doctoral.


John Huff

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