Ice and politics in Curse of the Golden Flower


Huang Huang (aka Lao Huang), a critic who has been editor of both Movie View and New Cinema, writes about film in the blog "My personal red-light district". Below, translated with permission, are some reflections on Curse of the Golden Flower, along with an unexpected reaction that illustrates the perils of delving too deeply into political meaning:

Curse of the Golden Flower: The dominant voice in Chinese film in 2006

by Lao Huang

Braving the wind and rain in the city, I went to see Curse of the Golden Flower.

Previously, The Beijing News and Southern Metropolis Daily had chosen to take aim Zhang Yimou from the very first; many of the cool people I know each had their own things to say, and you could basically count on your fingers those that said something nice. But my opinion was at odds with theirs: Golden Flower is strong, vigorous, and compelling. Imperfections on a technical level do not amount to anything that deserves a concerted attack from the media; there must be some behind-the-scenes change there, an unverbalized secret.

The mainstream media seems to be heading toward a position of internal chaos, of contradictions; this kind of thing was fairly obvious during the time of House of Flying Daggers, but that is not today's topic of discussion.

If anyone, whether media or individual, attacks or disagrees with Golden Flower, I can understand, since at any rate abusing Zhang Yimou has become habitual and lambasting all domestic films has been fashionable for some time.

Yesterday I ran into Tan Fei, who also turned up his nose at Golden Flower. I asked, why then does the media treat such a good movie as Still Life with such puzzling coldness, while chattering incessantly about a bomb? He said, the media is too practical.

It's not the media that is too practical. People are too practical.

The discussion about the movie on a techinical level I don't care much either way. Opinions vary, this is completely normal, but using breasts as constant examples is really not that dignified. Writing to attract a large audience is not inappropriate but rather not all that clever - it's like a clown doing tricks.

Or perhaps all you saw in the whole thing was "billowing and surging"? I fear for your eyesight and perception.

The story is certainly not weak.

Everyone knows that the story is adapted from Thunderstorm. But adapting a famous work is incredibly risky, as everyone in film is aware; Golden Flower's "adaptation" of Thunderstorm is subversive, it imbues its borrowed body with a new, powerful spirit. Nothing like The Banquet's tortured imitation and painful performance.

Ice is water, but it is colder than water.

Through the entire movie, Armor is talking politics. This point is not hard to see for anyone who's had the slightest bit of experience with the deep changes in Chinese society over the last twenty years.

Talking politics may even be a hidden element in Chinese film that will never go missing. Always extolling art movies, creators naturally are after profound themes and political metaphors; it is hard to lay it aside. Peacock, Shanghai Dreams....even the just-screened Battle of Wits - they are all like this. But in truly being able lay out bald "political metaphor", Golden Flower is the fiercest, most direct - it neither hesitates nor pulls its punches - when the blood is flowing in rivers, everything is wiped clean, and once again all is spread with flowers, covering up the truth....

The dialogue is frighteningly frank:

"I did not rebel for the sake of the crown. I did it for the sake of my mother [to cease taking poison]."

This is exactly the situation those people were in back then. Later the rebellion was suppressed, the regime ordered the "rebel" to make the ultimate choice: death, or renouncing the oath, killing the queen, and living out the rest of his days in ignominy. Many years ago, what happened in front of the gates of the Forbidden City, many people chose to live on in an ignoble silence, or to continue their ignoble lives in silence, because that was more realistic.

But the second prince did not choose betrayal; he died for his oath - the generous death of an idealist.

That glass of wine turned out to be poisoned wine!
The King never intended to let the queen continue living!
For many years, Chinese movies have been like that queen, slowly poisoned. Only, we cannot find that murderous king.

Chow Yun-fat's acting was superb. He took a king, upon whose body rested the complicated interplay of the roles of a tyranical ruler and a valiant father, at times contradictory and at times intermixed, and gave him poigniant expression.

The uncut version of Golden Flowers had made clear that the king had an unmentionable disease; was he not always bathed in incense upon the dragon throne? That was because he truly understood that his virility was ebbing, in spite of everything he needed a son, a most valiant son. Regrettably, it was that very son who rebelled against him.

For Still Life and Curse of the Golden Flower to appear in the same year is a wonder for Chinese culture. So Chinese film in 2006 can be called marvelous, a perfect answer to a century of Chinese cinema.

2007, The Sun Also Rises....

Subsequently, Taiwan's United Daily News stated outright a number of things that were implied in the review, quoting sections of Huang Huang's piece in an article titled, "Did Zhang Yimou shoot Golden Flower as a metaphor for 6-4?"

Huang Huang responded with this:

A criticism of Taiwan's United Daily News taking things out of context!

by Lao Huang

If it weren't for a kind friend who quickly notified me of this, I'm afraid I'd still be in the dark - turns out United Daily News willfully lifted my criticism of Golden Flower, repackaged it, added some spice, all with the intent of blowing up the sensitive political content; several lines were elaborated upon to such an extent that I cannot permit it.

The current atmosphere in mainland film criticism is chaotic, like walking on coals. The Taiwan media then goes and willfully switches things around, fanning the flames and adding to the situation. I must express my deep disappointment at this. I apologize for the negative influence this matter may have on the film Golden Flower and on the director Zhang Yimou.

We are all aware that a movie can be deconstructed in many ways, sexual deconstruction, political deconstruction....a critic's explanation sometimes will exceed the creator's expectations. This is normal, so things should not be turned back upon them, causing disaster for the creator. This is just common sense.

I hope that United Daily News will handle this matter prudently.

I also hope that everyone can maintain a calm attitude toward this unexpected interlude.

Lao Huang, 22 December 2006, Night of the Winter Solstice

Note: The criticism of two days ago mentioned Mr. Tan Fei in passing. Because the outcome was unexpected, it may have caused some misunderstanding. I hereby express my apologies.

Links and Sources
There are currently 2 Comments for Ice and politics in Curse of the Golden Flower.

Comments on Ice and politics in Curse of the Golden Flower

It is more a drama than a martial arts flicks. Believe it or not, it is a remake of a late 50’s movie “Thunder Rain”. Starring a teenage Bruce Lee. Yep, THE Bruce Lee. Whom played the character of the youngest son. The movie was based on a famous pre-war novel “Family Spring and Autumn (Means ‘The rise and fall of a family’ or ‘History of a family’)” about a moral decaying promenade family. Which the eldest son had an affair with the step mom (Yikes!), and later fell in love with a chamber maid, whom turned out to be his long lost half sister by his supposingly dead mom. Which the long lost mom co-incidentally reappeared after she learned that her daughter got pregnanted by the eldest son…Director Zhang Yimou has added a lots of Blinks and extras in the movies and turned the story’s time line back a thousand year, but the story hasn’t changed much. All in all, it’s a good movie for entertainment, but I won’t hold my breath for an academy award nomination.

I can understand it as an analogy for politics, but speaking as one who watches these movies literally: I still don't understand the motivation for the Emperor to poison the Empress with a fungus that would drive her mad. Seems risky!

I enjoyed your review, it helped me see this gorgeous movie under a different lense.

China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
From 2008
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!
Danwei Archives