Curse of the Golden Flower.
In the Curse of the Golden Flower, China’s official 2007 Oscar entry, highly acclaimed director Zhang Yimou carries us into the world of the Tang dynasty, a period known for its flamboyance, beauty, and glamour. But as the Chinese saying goes “Gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside” we soon come to see that beneath the beautiful and lavish exterior lies a dark portrait of humanity.
To this end, color, in addition to its cinematic effect, constitutes the film’s major theme, explains Yimou, by creating a strong contrast “between form and content” represented by the exterior gold and jade glitter, and the internal family darkness, therefore heightening “the tragic feeling of the story and of the characters.”
Twists and plots turn Emperor against Empress, parents against children, and Princes against each other in their struggle for survival.
The Emperor, trapped in a marriage of convenience, slowly poisons the Empress who is having an illicit affair with her step-son Prince Wan (Liu Ye) who is in love with Chan (Man Li) the sweet Imperial doctor’s daughter. The cascade of events that follows leads to the revelation of deeply rooted secrets, a coup, and a struggle for power.
Unlike Yimou’s two prior films based on traditional martial arts, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, this third action film, director Yimou states, “is quite different because it is more an amalgamation of a melodrama as well as an action film. That’s something I very consciously wanted to do.”
Stellar cast marks this big production, having for the leading roles the two most reputable Chinese actors working today, Chow Yun Fat (the Emperor) and Gong Li (the Empress), along with Jay Chou (Prince Jai), Asia’s pop sensation.
Chow Yun Fat is convincing in his powerful portrayal of the evil and ambitious Emperor. Fat conquered Asia with numerous Best Actor Awards reaching megastar status is Asia and considered a sex symbol Hong Kong. His upcoming roles include the Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) and in the Chinese epic film The Battle of Red Cliff (2008).
Gong Li, named China’s Greta Garbo is beautiful and elegant in her role of the Empress; a difficult role to play, but splendidly performed. Gong Li will be seen next in the movie Hannibal Rising (2007) by Peter Weber.
Jay Chou’s performance as the middle son Prince Jai is also remarkable as he is torn between the intrigues between the Emperor and Empress. “There was something really wonderful about Jay Chou’s performance” explains director Yimou, “there is simplicity but also a real power that comes through in his performance.” Other characters, in the film, had “a lot of stage experience and were very well versed in dramatic art because this is, after all, adapted from a play.”
Liu Ye, as Prince Wan, skillfully played the eldest son. Liu Ye won the 2004 Best Actor award at the China Golden Rooster Awards for Beauty Grass and the 2002 Best Actor Award at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards for Lan Yu. He will appear in the forthcoming Dark Matter (2007) directed by Chen Si-Zeng.
The Imperial Doctor Jiang (Ni Dahong) and his wife played by Chen Jin stood out in their dramatic roles. Both Ni Dahong and Chen Jin had numerous leading roles in China and are both recipients of many awards. Ni Dahong received two of the highest honors in Chinese Theater: The Plum Blossom Award in 2000 and the Wenhua Award in 1999. Chen Jin will be seen next in the movie Luck of Love.
Lavish Chinese costumes with striking ornamental gold were designed by Yee Chung Man. Many outfits had four to six layers each, and were “meticulously handcrafted with intricate details” explains Yimou. Particularly ornate were “the ‘Dragon Robe’ and the ‘Phoenix Gown’ worn by Chow Yun Fat (The Emperor) and Gong Li (The Empress)” which “took 40 artisans over the course of two months to construct each.”
Elaborate costumes added to the preparation time. Notwithstanding the smooth and efficient process, Gong Li admits, daily preparation “including hair, makeup, and costumes took about three to four hours total.”
Zhan Yimou explains that “to emphasize the gold, as well to heighten the splendid beautiful feeling of the Tang Dynasty, we cut gold color dust from a variety of sources and used it in the set designs, in glass handcrafts such as vessels, and in the columns of the palace. The real version of this glass-work is actually very expensive. We couldn't afford to use the real thing for the entire film. So we actually spent about 4-5 month experimenting with different replacements that could be less expensive while still capturing that same kind of human feeling.”
While the interior scenes were shot in a studio in Beijing,
real locations were used for the external scenes. The massive structure constituting the Palace “was actually under construction during the filming of Hero” in the Chongqing province, but was never “used because it was too big” says Yimou.
Through Action Director, Tony Ching Siu-Tong, exceptional battle sequences were designed with impressive artistry and precision, especially those scenes with the masked black swordsmen attack, and where “thousands of golden armored warriors charge the Palace” says Yimou.
In some of the battle scenes, “there’s probably just between a dozen, maybe 20 shots at the most in which we have used CG technology” states Yimou, but “most of what you see are real people and real battle sequences.” Yimou further explains, notwithstanding a crew of over 200 “we had between 800 to 1000 extras. These were actual soldiers from the People Liberation Army that were working for us.”
The Curse of the Golden Flower is based on one of the most famous and most commonly performed plays in China, Thunderstorm, written in 1933 by Cao Yu. Director Yimou transposed the setting to pre-modern China. The screenplay was co-written by Zhang Yimou, Wu Nan and Bian Zhihong, and co-produced by Bill Kong and Zhang Weiping. Original music was composed and produced by the commended Shigeru Umebayashi.
The outstanding acting, exceptional photography by Zhao Xiaoding, beautifully choreographed action scenes, elegant set designs by Huo Tingxiao, and traditional ceremonial formality, makes the Curse of the Golden Flower a true masterpiece.
An interesting note:
Zhang Yimou has been named chief director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 29th Olympic Games in Beijing, 2008.