Sit back and take in 'Curse'

Published: Friday, January 12, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 11:51 p.m.


''Curse of the Golden Flower''

Grade: B+ Starring Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Rated R for violence. In Mandarin with subtitles. 1 hour, 54 minutes.
The verdict: Some bits are cheesy, but overall, wow!

Maybe it's the tsunami of gold-clad soldiers flooding the palace courtyard. Or perhaps the dozens of black-clad ninja look-alikes descending like spiders into a mountain pass. Or it could be as uncomplicated as the empress's beyond-ornate fingernails.
Let's just say it's all of the above. And more. Overkill has rarely been this intoxicating.
Chinese director Zhang Yimou's spectacular movie ''The Curse of the Golden Flower'' is a far cry from the aesthetic simplicity of his most recent film, ''Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.'' Or, for that matter, earlier works such as ''Not One Less'' and ''The Road Home.''
Nor does it offer the intricate psychological and emotional intrigues and complex characters of his earliest - and still best - works: ''Raise the Red Lantern,'' ''Ju Dou'' and ''Red Sorghum.'' And while it shares a penchant for martial-arts magic and mayhem with his ''House of Flying Daggers'' and ''Hero,'' it doesn't approach their transcendent meditations.
All that said, it's still one hell of a show - a D.W. Griffith-sized historical epic by way of a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza.
Set during the period of the corrupt Later Tang Dynasty in 10th century China, ''Curse'' has enough plots, counterplots and subplots to fill a half dozen Shakespeare plays (at times, it borrows directly from the Bard, especially ''Macbeth'' and ''King Lear''). But battles aside, the film is more contained. More like Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, playing their crown-greedy sons off one another.
Yes, it's ''The Crouching Tiger in Winter.''
Chow Yun Fat plays the emperor, a mighty warrior, but also imperious, unpredictable and, when it pleases him, murderous. Gong Li is his second wife, the empress (what happened to wife No. 1 is murky), who's got a few schemes of her own. She has to; her husband has ordered the imperial doctor to mix poison into her medicine. She knows about it, but drinks the stuff anyway.
Their three sons are led by Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye). Not only is he the eldest, but he's also the emperor's son by his first wife. Which is why his secretly sleeping with the empress doesn't really count as incest. The second son, Prince Jai (Asian pop star Jay Chou), is a powerful warrior; more crucially, he's the empress's favorite. The youngest, Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), is a teenager, but he's still old enough to lurk around in corridors and hear things he shouldn't.
Basically, the movie is soap opera done on a grand opera scale - more ''Dynasty'' than Later Tang Dynasty.
The immensity of Zhang's vision is eyepopping. Imagine several football fields worth of shimmering golden chrysanthemums. Thundering battles royal with arrows, swords, spears and a cast of thousands. Inside the palace, hundreds of dainty women bind their breasts, like primitive push-up bras, before they start their day. And dozens of servants are needed to prepare the emperor's steam bath.
It's one delirious scene after another. And if, by his emphasis on the many rather than the few, the director seems to be squandering the considerable talents of his stars (especially Li, who's upstaged by her own cleavage), it's worth it.
Sure, a bit of subtlety and perhaps more complicated characters would be welcome, but it's better to accept ''Curse of the Golden Flower'' as is than worry about what it isn't. Just sit back, relax and take it all in. It's that kind of movie.

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