Home > Reviews > CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER – Shigeru Umebayashi


December 22, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Clark Douglas

Watching “Curse of the Golden Flower”, I was reminded of something someone said in the documentary “A Decade Under the Influence” (I forget who)… that during the 50’s and 60’s, many directors held the belief that the kinds of movies people wanted to see were those about people who lived grand, epic lives that bore no resemblance to our own. “It’s like taking a trip to a new and wonderful place!” was the rationale. There’s a certain degree of truth there, but the flip side of the coin is, it’s often hard to identify with and care about the grand people who live in these worlds.

“Curse of the Golden Flower” is directed by Zhang Yimou, who in recent years made the superb “Hero” and the almost-as-good “House of Flying Daggers”, stunning action films, indeed. For “Curse of the Golden Flower”, he takes the emphasis off action and places it on Shakespearean melodrama, with an odd story of incest and betrayal seemingly cobbled together from several of the Bard’s most famous works. The itty-bitty details of this rather off putting plot are best left to those who wish to navigate the film for themselves, but let’s talk for a moment about the characters.

The movie is set in 928 AD, and the story follows the Chinese Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat), his wife (Gong Li), and their three sons (Jay Chou, Qin Junjie, and Liu Ye). The emperor is plotting to kill his wife by inserting black fungus in her daily tea that will make her go insane over time. Meanwhile, the empress is plotting to kill her husband (she’s found out about his fungus scheme) and is also conducting an affair with her son, who in turn is conducting an affair with the daughter of the emperor’s doctor’s wife… ah, okay, I won’t get too caught up in all of that. Meanwhile, the princes are all bitter among themselves about who gets the honors of doing what when at the upcoming Chrysanthemum Festival. The performances are… well, over-the-top, but effective enough, I suppose. Chow Yun-Fat plays the emperor with a surprising level of commanding menace, but Gong Li is forced to cry, sweat, yell, and quiver her way through a demanding, thankless role.

What stands out impressively here is the production design of the Imperial Palace, which does not contain one square inch of anything that could be termed “common” or “ordinary”. Gold is the primary color, with many other bright colors adding splashes (or overdoses) of flavor to every room. The costumes are splendid, indeed, and the depiction of life in the palace even moreso. The emperor is carried wherever he wants to go by a group of men, the empress has servants waiting eagerly to wipe up a drop of tea that might spill from her glass, they’re also carrying around bowls for her to spit in when she feels like it. The prince takes a bath while a horde of beautiful women throw flower petals on him (not precisely what every man wants beautiful women to do to him while he is bathing, but close enough, I suppose).

But all the silly melodrama kind of spoils the atmosphere. I’m not opposed to melodrama (directors like Kenneth Branagh, Brian De Palma, and even Zhang Yimou himself have done it very well on numerous occasions), but because there’s really no human connection to these characters, it comes off as epic acting rather than epic drama. When the action-packed third act comes up, the film is even more disappointing. After the remarkably well-staged action sequences in “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” it is disappointing to see such obvious reliance on CGI being used for the less graceful, more savage “Lord of the Rings”-style battle scene in this film. The director is capable of far better. He does provide some genuine thrills when the emperor’s group of rope-swinging ninjas show up, but when they swing together in packs (which they do often), they rather oddly resemble the flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz”.

Further melodrama is provided by the score from Shigeru Umebayashi, who also scored “House of Flying Daggers”. The score is heavy on chanting male choir cues, which of course has film critics crying that it resembles Carl Orff, which is nonsense… it sounds nothing like Carl Orff, aside from the fact that a chanting choir is on hand. Truth be told, the choral sequences are really rather dull and sluggish, not to mention super-portentous. Zhang Yimou seems to be taking his film far too seriously, and the score only adds to that. Still, it is not without merit. A few of the gentler emotional cues are genuinely beautiful, and some of the later action sequences quite exciting. Oddly, the earlier action scenes in the film are score only with pounding drums, nothing more. Those who enjoyed “House of Flying Daggers” may like this score, but this one is less effective and more repetitive.

There’s a part of me that really wants to rent “Curse of the Golden Flower”, and indeed, if you are someone who values cinematic costume and set design, I urge you to check it out, because this film is Oscar-worthy in those departments. But it doesn’t work as drama, or as melodrama, or as an action film, or as a character study… so those of you seeking that would be better off renting “Hero”, “House of Flying Daggers”, or “Hamlet” (either the Branagh or Zeffirelli version). Let’s hope “Curse of the Golden Flower” represents a misfire for Zhang Yimou, and not a new career direction.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Opening (0:55)
  • Tai-He-Song (1:17)
  • Return to the Palace (1:22)
  • Theme of the Emperor (1:28)
  • Theme of the Empress (1:45)
  • Empress’s Solitude (0:46)
  • Shadow & Escape (1:34)
  • Again (1:38)
  • Mother & Jai (3:58)
  • Portrait (0:41)
  • Theme of the Empress Fate (2:05)
  • Fight of the Sickle Troops (2:29)
  • Emperor & Empress (2:46)
  • Behind Pageant (3:09)
  • Huang Jin Jia (0:56)
  • Rebellion (2:52)
  • Prince Yu’s Ambition (1:25)
  • Betray to the Emperor (2:40)
  • Heroic Battle (3:38)
  • Wan’s Last Moment (1:04)
  • End of the War (1:18)
  • Imperial Ceremony (1:41)
  • Curse of the Golden Flower (2:38)
  • Ending Title (5:03)

Running Time: 49 minutes 08 seconds

Lakeshore LKS-338982 (2006)

  1. Philipp
    June 4, 2015 at 2:54 am

    Two paragraphs just for the actual score review?

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