Ways of looking at Curse of the Golden Flower


There’s been quite a bit said about how bad Zhang Yimou’s latest film is: how Curse of the Golden Flower is all empty spectacle, how its skimpy costumes and blood-soaked finale amount to commercialized garbage, and how its social commentary is superficial and essentially irrelevant.

In some ways it seems as if the media was primed to hate the film even before it came out. Huang Huang wondered about this in his review, and critic Zeng Zihang, who is currently attached to CCTV-6, has speculated in his blog about whether slamming Zhang Yimou is simply the fashionable thing to do these days. Those critics who liked the film – or who found something meaningful to say about it – seemed to be in the minority. Raymond Zhou, noted film critic and China Daily columnist, sees the split reaction as inevitable:

Some viewers may be excited by Zhang Yimou’s new movie Curse of the Golden Flower, while others may be perplexed or disappointed, but I would say that it is hard not be moved at all. This is quite possible a work that inspires an extreme response, for everyone sees something different in it. Some people will see a Freudean complex (father-killing and mother-marrying), other a false picture of security (the continual calling, noisier than prayer, like a great propaganda machine); some will see an emphasis on harmony (using a carpet of fresh flowers to cover over the scars of battle), others a praise or criticism of the order and rules (the movie’s family scenes). Foreigners who are not well-acquainted with Chinese culture will see only a family soap-opera full of coincidences and lifted out of Shakespeare’s tragedies (for example, the three siblings are taken from King Lear and the jealous king from Othello, while the scheming queen references Macbeth and the carnage in the palace resembles Hamlet). Of course, they do not know that it is Cao Yu’s work that Old Zhang has returned to Shakespearean tradition.

Zhou has been collecting reviews of the movie on his blog and has discovered that the reactions of filmgoers fall into seven levels of understanding:

Seven layers of Curse of the Golden Flower

  1. Great movie, very showy and quite watchable;
  2. The grand display of Chinese culture – the rainbow-feathered costumes, carved and painted architecture, and Chinese medicine – is inspiring to behold;
  3. Dazzling, dizzying, and disgusting;
  4. The opulence on display in the film is repugnant;
  5. Good fails to defeat evil in the movie; it advocates despotism. The error of this postion is nauseating;
  6. The movie criticizes despotism and inspires awe;
  7. The movie is an allusion to a particular political incident that can only be implied but not stated outright.

The particular political incident, of course, is what Huang Huang makes reference to in his review.

Some other critical reactions:

· Dou Jiangming, who didn’t care much for Zhang’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, sees in Golden Flower a “mass-exercise aesthetic”:

Coincidentally, the setting, like The Banquet, is in the Five Dynasties. The Five Dynasties, a time of chaos, provides a convenient historical backdrop for the stories. However, in the case of Banquet, the setting was chosen only for the indulgence of the script and effects (the spike punishment scene is a prime example of this indulgence), while in Golden Flower, the chaos worked to remove the feeling of history. Since we find it hard to connect to historical figures with whom we are familiar, if there is an appropriate insinuation (whether or not it truly is), we have an easier time connecting it to any particular point in history. The chrysanthemums covering the palace courtyard, the scene of the warriors facing each other decked out in golden and silver armor, the extras drawn from the army who moved in unison was enough to give me a vision that I had moved in time, back to the grand scene of Tian’anmen at the 40th anniversary of the country, or the opening ceremony of the Asian Games.

Setting Golden Flower at that time gave the film a feeling of being beyond history (but not beyond reality). Chow Yun-fat’s emperor was not just some man of some dynasty and empire; he became rather the epitome of “that one” throughout China’s grand, long history. And the dark story, the commanding the queen to take poison-bearing medicine, exceeded any particular dynastic backdrop and became a Diary of a Madman-like parable of “cannibalism” in Chinese history. Within this extra-historical feeling, criticism of traditional Chinese politics and civilization gained expanded dimension of time (even to the point of having the feeling of using the past to satirize the present; there’s no need to keep quiet about the fact that contemporary China inherits that part of the 5000 years of history, too).

The last scene of the battle between the golden-clad army and the silver-clad army is completely unlike the scenes of battle with which we are familiar. It is a perfect example of the “mass-exercise aesthetic” style. The camera fixes on Jay Chou’s prince as he leads a coup; there are no close-ups of the warriors involved in the coup. The camera is essentially frozen. No shots of their agony and death-cries, no martyrs or heroics. “Cut down like grass.”

Jay Chou leads the force into battle like an honor guard – he raises his staff, and the golden armor surges forward, surges to be ruthlessly slaughtered.

Just like a mass-games performance.

Cold-blooded in the extreme.

Dou goes on to discuss the final clean-up scene, seeing it in much the same way as Huang Huang. But he adds a postscript:

I’ve had this piece written for a while, editing it over and over, and talking it over with friends during the writing process. Yesterday, a friend I have not seen face-to-face for a while said to me on MSN, “If we’ve spent that much money to tell the public that good cannot overcome evil, then the director is a real bastard.” Suddenly, that iciness I felt when watching the film returned, and I once again shivered.

Yes, because of that intentional iciness, I have decided to add this postscript, withdrawing all of the praise I have given to Golden Flower. It is with great disappointment that I finally have found the correct posture I should have toward this movie: turn my back on it.

In a more recent post, Dou points out five similarities shared the recent blockbusters Hero, House of Flying Daggers, The Promise, The Banquet and Golden Flower: (1) Huge box-office accompanied by a critical slag-fest; (2) a mainstream aesthetic; (3) an absolute position with respect to the masses; (4) the main character is a king; (5) the creator is a “king”. He concludes:

The creators are always misunderstood, particularly Zhang Yimou, who did three of the blockbusters. Each of his films has sincerely taken into account the opinions of critics. For example, thematically, Golden Flower is the complete opposite of Hero, with its lance directed at those in power. But criticism was just as sharp, and parodies were just as savage.

This is because the Chinese-style blockbuster, born into the new century, bears the unmistakable birthmark of contemporary China. It is being used as a transitional vehicle, at which and anger and dissatisfaction at life and disdain and distaste for the authorities are given vent. This is movie-watching with Chinese characteristics, to take a blockbuster way too seriously.

· Li Yi, who writes for Beijing Youth Daily, does not see the movie as a success, and identifies character interactions as the root cause of the its failure:

The reservations that have been raised about Zhang Yimou mostly center around his narrative skills; his earlier movies were adaptated from novels, so there was a guarantee of quality. Once he switched to original, commercial wuxia, he lost it. This is the most widespread viewpoint, but I think that it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. In Zhang Yimou’s films, the role of women is critical….If Golden Flower had been produced according to Zhang Yimou’s temperament, then I am certain that Gong Li’s role would have been enlarged – this is what the two of them are most adept at. From this point of view, the Zhang Ziyi-dominated Banquet has more of a resemblance to a Zhang Yimou “return” to costume drama. But in the hands of producer Zhang Weiping, Zhang Yimou was not able to accomplish that. With Chow Yun-fat on board, the older male character was not concealed, as in Raise the Red Lantern or weak and impotent as in Ju Dou; throughout Golden Flower, the emperor maintained an aura of strength. Thus the scene in which third prince Yuancheng kills Yuanxiang, though “unexpected,” is nevertheless not shocking enough by far. The subsequent scene in which Yuancheng pours out his anguish to his parents over their disregard reflects even more the thinness of the tension. I also feel that Chow’s character was something of an impossibility for Zhang; compared to Ju Dou, the emperor beating his son here seems unneccessary.

Actors are crazy, and viewers are idiots. This saying was not originally meant as a critical appraisal, but applied to the interaction between producers and viewers in the mainland, it carries a different implication. In the opinion of the emperor and crown prince in Golden Flower, the queen is crazed, and the medicine lifted out of Thunderstorm is been given an enlarged role in the movie, providing Gong Li with an excellent reason for a performance wracked with convulsions, always biting her lower lip. There are always parallels, and in all fairness Goldern Flower is essentially Zhang Yimou’s early film ideas in a more luxuriant mode, and compromised by the rules of commercialization. But this is not a repeatable method, and it cannot establish a model. For a director who holds inexaustable resources in his hands to turn in this kind of submission is beneficial neither to himself nor to Chinese commercial cinema.

Interestingly, even most of the critics who write off Golden Flower as garbage make mention of the power of the scene in which palace workers replace the carnage of battle with fresh chrysanthemums. In his original review for China Daily, Raymond Zhou concluded with the following observation:

The important thing is: Is Zhang Yimou extolling, as many believe he did in “Hero,” or is he implicitly critical of it?

That may determine whether this swirl of swindle and swordplay with a sea of chrysanthemums in the backdrop turns out to be a soap opera with a grand budget or a grand opera with a disturbing political message.

Links and Sources
This entry was posted in Film, Internet and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.