Trash-talking uber-producer Joel Silver couldn’t shut up about his hip urban action trilogy a few years back, and we enjoyed/suffered through Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds and Cradle 2 the Grave.
It was Asian cinema seen through the prism of American culture – rap music, fast talking black hustlers, things blowing up indiscriminately and token Asian martial artists (usually Jet Li) who were indestructible.
So it’s with some relief the mantle of Asian action trilogies was passed to Chinese director Yimou Zhang. He not only told Chinese stories in his own language with his own cultural heritage and a genuine love of the medium, he kept Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Memoirs of a Geisha) in regular work as the go-to girl for every young Asian female role.
The lack of action and overdose of cinematography of Hero and House of Flying Daggers rankled some viewers, so it’s gratifying to see Zhang get the blend just right in Curse of the Golden Flower.
It’s ancient times once again and at the centre of the drama is the squabbling royal family consisting of the cruel emperor (Yun-Fat), the beautiful empress (Li) whose icy determination to alter her fate is matched only by her love of her adoptive children, and the three crown prices in line to inherit the throne.
It’s a time where everything is a ceremony, even casual talks with family members, and Zhang and his cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao exploit the visual possibilities to the full, every frame of the film a canvas with a riot of colour and form lovingly crafted on it.
What Zhang doesn’t forget this time is the action, and as the dirty secrets in the royal family are revealed and the players jostle to play their hands, menace and violence slowly build to a clanging CGI climax of blades and blood.
Like a feudal Chinese Terms of Endearment, it’s also the biggest pro democracy statement ever to come out of China, and how the party censors let it out of the country is a miracle. As armies, assassins and inconveniently placed witnesses and patsies fall under the sword in the name of a power struggle between five people, there’s never been a louder plea for the sort of checks and balances that restrains absolute power.
Its native language gives the film an inherent credibility and there are few of the pacing or style-over-substance problems that hampered Zhang’s previous efforts. If you want to isolate one anomaly, it’s the endless procession corsets crushing breasts up and out of traditional dress like it was eighteenth century Paris instead of pre-unified China.
With their demure, innocent eyes and heaving bosoms the cream of Asia’s young female acting talent look like live action manga-inspired porn starlets. A historian may prove us wrong, but we’re fairly confident Chinese traditional garb in the 10th century was a little more chaste.
Sumptuous, graphic, tense and beautiful.