With all due respect to 1994's Ashes of Time, Wong Kar-Wai's brooding, bewildering take on the Asian action epic, it was Ang Lee who established the genre as commercially and aesthetically vibrant with his dazzling 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Since then, Lee's films have retained Crouching Tiger's grace and sadness as they drift further and further from their fantastic, mythical source; 2003's underrated Hulk and 2005's justly lauded Brokeback Mountain cover tragic emotional terrain while abandoning the visceral pleasures of martial-arts choreography.
Thankfully, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou made an equally astonishing about-face a few years ago. After beginning his career with human dramas such as Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern, the new millennium has seen the director push the boundaries of the martial-arts art film in magnificent works such as 2002's Hero and 2004's House of Flying Daggers. His latest, the grim yet enthralling The Curse of the Golden Flower, belongs in their company. I'm not sure I will be lucky enough to see another action film as rich and rewarding as Yimou's latest.
On one level, the film is a kind of negative fable about the fate of the 10th-century Tang dynasty; the narrative describes the plots and counterplots of the emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) and his second wife (Gong Li) with serene calm as their strategies and machinations enmesh their three sons and the family of the imperial doctor.
Li aside, the actors may seem stiff and awkward at first. But Yimou uses their environment to comment on their mental states. The vibrant colors and wildly ornate mise-en-scène within the walls of the Imperial Palace transform these stiff, reserved characters into both mythical and flesh-and-blood beings; they wander the halls as though they are obsessively tracing the circuits of a great, diseased royal brain.
The rest of the world hovers around the palace as well, and Yimou's most astonishing accomplishment is to express the impact of the smallest imperial decisions on the rest of society. Each time the empress moves, a small entourage follows in her wake; each time the emperor sits, eight people must prepare to move him when he has finished. The scale of the film is gargantuan; Zhang shows us the hundreds of chambermaids who wake to the same dull gong each morning and the hundreds of pots that are set to boil for each meal. When the empress demands chrysanthemums, hundreds reach for a flowerpot; when Prince Jai says, "Charge," thousands of pieces of armor clang in unison.
And clang they do. The film does not have the prolonged fight sequences that characterize Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but what they lack in frequency they compensate for in size. The closing attack on the Imperial Palace rivals the horrifying climax of Akira Kurosawa's RAN. Like Kurosawa, Zhang has crafted a beautiful, distressing story about the ravages of internecine combat and power on the earth. Do not miss it.
The Curse of the Golden Flower
Opening Friday, January 12th