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Movie Review: Curse of the Golden Flower

Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (City of Golden Armor) aka Curse of the Golden Flower
Written and directed by Zhang Yimou based on the play Thunderstorm by Cao Yu
Sony Pictures Classics

Every year it seems, the U.S. gets China’s latest sumptuous martial arts drama, complete with dense mythology and graceful warriors aided by wires.  Curse of the Golden Flower instantly gets points for not being another Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon clone, although Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) has made his share.

Empress Phoenix (the always beautiful, seemingly ageless Gong Li) is suffering from some sort of mystery ailment, and her husband Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat) has been trying to find a cure for it.  But wait, this is no The Fountain: Ping is looking for a cure for this ailment like O.J. is looking for a cure for stab wounds.  As the Empress suffers from this ailment, the bad medicine is provided by the Imperial Physician (Ni Dahong) and his daughter (Li Man).

Next in line for the throne is the Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), who was born from a different mother and has had an ongoing affair with the Empress while the Emperor has been gone.  This prince is in the beginnings of a romance with the Physician’s daughter, which raises all sorts of conflict in the Kingdom.  The second prince, Jai (Jay Chou), is the real leader of the brothers, but does not jealously seek the throne.  The third prince, Cheng (Qin Junjie), is a book-smart kiss-ass who seems pretty irrelevant, especially when in consideration of the older brothers.

At some point, the Empress learns the facts of the poisonous medicine from a mysterious informer, and plots her calculated revenge, one that will take place at the much-ballyhooed Chrysanthemum Festival.  The story unfolds into one of those Shakespearean tragedies, filled with forbidden love, a chess match of plotting, and dire consequences.

For the first two-thirds, this is a great movie.  It’s an incredible feast for the eyes, and Gong Li, finally speaking her native language (after Memoirs of a Geisha and Miami Vice had her unfortunately stumbling through English), shows off her great acting chops.  But when the last third hits, and the plot is driven into its conclusion full of let’s-beat-Lord-of-the-Rings over-the-top battle sequences, which confuse the plot proceedings and make the story into an anything-goes exercise, it becomes slightly less than great overall.  But before I go onto a rant that sounds like I’m dismissing the movie, I state here and now I enjoyed this flick.

When the movie quietly sets up its plot, it’s magnificent.  But I thought the payoff was bungled, and could have taken a tip from Shakespeare and left the action strictly to the principal characters rather than adding a cast of millions (probably a combination of real and digital) fighting for what seems like the entire galaxy.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s some very nice action in this movie and it always looks great; it’s just when the plot gets muddled it loses some impact.  Overall, a very good movie.

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