Partway through watching Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower, I turned to my wife and said, “You know, with all the court intrigue, the secrets, and the hidden siblings, this movie feels Shakespearean.” I may not have been too far off. If you read the movie’s Wikipedia page, the writers cite King Lear as a possible inspiration.
Curse of the Golden Flower is based on a 1934 play called Thunderstorm. Set during the Japanese invasion of China during World War II, the play chronicles the misfortunes of the Zhou family. It’s a tragic tale of family intrigue, the punishment you pay for holding on too hard to traditions, and one woman’s quest for vengeance. And incest. That part was pretty scandalous, but didn’t stop the play from becoming quite popular. (The luridness may have been the reason for its popularity.)
The same themes reappear, with a slight twist. Director Zhang Yimou was firmly in the middle of his wuxia phase, which means that the World War II setting is now Imperial China. It’s a perfect setting for his aesthetic sensibilities. The hallways of the palace are in bright red, with bright color gradients on the columns. It’s like living inside a rainbow. It’s also ominously claustrophobic.
Empress Phoenix (played by Gong Li) is living a dual life. She puts on elaborate gold and silk costumes and present herself as an in-control head of state. While her husband, the Emperor Ping (Chow-Yun Fat) is away, she stitches marigolds for the upcoming festival. She has three loving sons and a large staff of maidens who dote on her and watch her health.
And yet, it’s all a facade. First of all, who is the Empress dressing up for? The Palace is oddly empty, made all the more apparent that this a a festival atmosphere. Should’ve there be more than just the palace staff? A family scene shows the Emperor, the Empress, and the three sons having a meal in a pavilion high above the palace courtyard… but there’s no one below. It’s vacant except for pretty decorations. It’s a poignant reminder that the Empress has not real power.
More importantly, though, the Empress is being gaslighted. Under orders of the emperor, one of the maids has been secretly poisoning the Empress. She has been adding a black fungus that acts slowly and over time will drive the Empress insane. We helplessly watch as she becomes weaker and more disheveled. The worst part is that it’s, perhaps, the worst kept secret in the movie. The Empress knows that something in the tea is killing her. Her own sons seems to suspect as well. But their hands are stayed. The Emperor is far too powerful, far too frightening for anyone to make a move against him.
The colors yellow and gold are prominently featured in the movie. I don’t know if it was intentional, given that colors have different connotations in different cultures, but the color scheme reinforced the claustrophobia and the feeling of insanity. It’s both elegant and a sickness. And yellow is a pretty stark contrast to when red blood splatters on it.
Oh, and the Empress is harboring another secret … or should I say secrets, as it’s not the only ace up her sleeve. But in the interest of not revealing all the spoilers, I’ll only talk about the one that’s revealed in the first ten minutes of the movie. She’s been having an affair with her oldest son, Crown Prince Zhai (Jay Chou). There’s a little relief here; Zhai is the Emperor’s so from a previous marriage. But still! There’s an additional twist: Zhai himself is having an affair with a pretty maid… the same maid who has been directed by the Emperor to poison his wife.
The movie isn’t simply a chamber drama, which is something I expected when I had read a plot synopsis. There are several action scenes throughout. We get a thrilling one-on-one hallway battle where Prince Zhai fights off a ninja. Later, the battles get larger. Two stealthy forces clash in a remote village, and later two armies clash in a field of marigolds.
And yet the most tense scenes involve a cup. Both Gong Li and Chow-Yun Fat are excellent actors, capable of conveying so much with nothing more than a glance. The Emperor strongly insists that his wife drink her medicine for her own good. The Empress tries to stand up for herself. But her resolve cannot withstand the Emperor’s iciness, which even his own sons cannot withstand. Even as the movie descends into operatic Grand Guignol at the end, there’s nothing more horrific than watching the Empress bring a cup of black liquid to her lips.
But while the Empress is dying, she’s not defeated. In her quarters, adorned with transparent silk so that she can truly do nothing in private, she plots her vengeance. After all, the Marigold Festival is coming. And her plan for retribution is coming together, one stitch at a time.
It’s a dangerous game: especially against a man who always seems to be several steps ahead. A man whose personal guard and whose spies seem to lurking the columns, rafters, and folds of every nook in the Imperial Palace.
Zhang Yimou films, at least the ones I’ve reviewed for this feature, don’t typically have happy or triumphant endings, and this is no exception. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews how Yimou seems to side with the tyrants, and it is your duty as a people to rally behind it because rebellions are futile. After all, you are part of the people, and the people are China, right? Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post said of Hero: “So the movie, in the end, endorses his right of conquest and unification on the grounds that fewer people will die than if the six nations continued to war against one another. To make an omelet, one must break some eggs, though nobody ever pays too much attention to the poor eggs.”
I did not get that same sentiment here. Emperor Ping is undoubtedly evil. Everything he does is cruel and psychotic and unforgivable. You want him to die. There is no sympathy for him, and no justification for his position. You get a glimpse of a world without him, perhaps one ruled be the Empress of one of her sons. It is infinitely better than the status quo. If Yimou’s previous films argued that it’s better to serve under a villain to save the people, Curse of the Golden Flower argues the opposite. As its source material also surmised, holding on to the old ways can be the doom of everyone.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you agree with Yimou’s political positions or not. Personally, I’ve never been swayed either way. I’m guessing Chinese audiences aren’t either. I keep coming back to Yimou movies because they’re undeniably visually mesmerizing. A Yimou movie looks like nothing else ever, even compared to is own contemporaries. The bold color palettes are surreal in a very particular sense. It’s a place that can’t possibly exist: a brightly colored fictional world of China’s past… as if national pride was itself the fairy tale.
Curse of the Golden Flower is available on Starz.
NEXT: We dive into the perverse world of the yakuza and Takashi Miike with Dead Or Alive.