'Golden Flower' Bursting With Martial Arts Fun

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2006

Think of "Curse of the Golden Flower" as "The Lion in Winter" with kung fu, and you'll enjoy the heck out of it.

No doubt Zhang Yimou is a great filmmaker, and no doubt Gong Li is a great actress, and no doubt the two of them made great films together -- "Raise the Red Lantern," "Ju Dou" and "Red Sorghum," to name just three of them. Also, no doubt this isn't one of them.

But it's fabulous fun and a nostalgic trip for Asia cinema fans who get to see the two reunited in a definitely modern project -- a huge, costly (said to be the most expensive Chinese film ever made) martial arts/family extravaganza that finishes up with one of the biggest battle scenes ever filmed, unless it's one of the most complex CGI dancing-electron hootenannies ever programmed, and I can't tell which.

The movie is a feast, an over-the-top, all-stops-pulled-out lollapalooza that means to play kitschy and grand at once. The great Chow Yun-Fat plays the Emperor Ping, home from the wars at last, eager to lose himself in the bosom of his loving family. Except he doesn't love them, and they don't love him, and everyone is busy plotting against each other. Like other family squabbles among the royals, such as World War I, this one kills thousands of people before it's all over.

His wife (Gong), the Empress Phoenix, has a grudge against him: He's slowly killing her with poison, which is introduced to her on a daily basis by the Imperial Physician (Ni Dahong). To get even, she is sleeping with the crown prince, who, as it turns out, is not her biological son but the son of a mysteriously vanished first wife (think she'll show up before the movie's over?). But at the same time, she's plotting to advance the fortunes of her firstborn son -- chronologically, son No. 2 -- while at the same time Son No. 3 hates them all. Son No. 2, by the way, is played by Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou.

The intricacies of the plots and counterplots are intense enough to justify both a secret ninja raid -- folks, no, this is China, so they aren't ninjas, they're, um, Chinese near-ninjas, so no nasty e-mails like last time, okay? -- on the fleeing physician, his long-lost wife and their daughter Chan (Man Li, in what would be called the Ziyi Zhang role). It's pretty much fun, involving a lot of magical rappelling out of the mountains, almost as much fun as the bamboo fighters in Zhang Yimou's last big showpiece, "House of Flying Daggers," which starred the actual Ziyi Zhang.

Anyway, all this leads to the opening night of the Chrysanthemum Festival in the capital city, which is also the night that all the plots come home to roost. Just when you think the ninja team of 60 will triumph, out comes a counter-army of a thousand. And just when you think the thousand will triumph, out comes the counter-counter-army of 10,000. Meanwhile, back in the castle, Emperor and Empress are screaming and cursing at each other, and the boys -- boys will be boys! -- are trying to kill whichever parent annoys them the most. Sounds like Christmas at our house.

The movie substitutes spectacle for emotional intimacy. Compared with "House of Flying Daggers," it's gargantuan, and Zhang particularly likes to prowl through the imperial palace and discover servants, workers, concubines in the hundreds, all equally costumed and consumed in duty. But in all, the film lacks the power of the triangular love story in "Daggers," since the motives are all based on hate and never love. In "Daggers," one felt the twisted emotional currents between Zhang's character and those of Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro; lacking the emotional power, the fights in "Golden Flower" are less meaningful, if more astonishing.

Chow has been better; his immediately recognizable face -- he was, for many years, the biggest movie star in the world! -- is hidden behind a gray goatee, which to my eyes disguises his singularity. You don't feel his presence and charm as you did in his great run of John Woo films. That, however, all but concedes the film to Gong, and she gives a grand, operatic performance, almost as powerful as Katharine Hepburn's in "The Lion in Winter." Knowing, violent, subtle, subversive, she's all the mad queens of all the literatures of the world melded into one goddess of fury with really long fingernails. Hmmm, and did I mention that a man designed the costumes, and what he came up with won't make feminists happy.

It's just a great old wild ride at the movies.

Curse of the Golden Flower (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence.

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