Film

Ways of looking at Curse of the Golden Flower

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There's been quite a bit said about how bad Zhang Yimou's latest film is: how Curse of the Golden Flower is all empty spectacle, how its skimpy costumes and blood-soaked finale amount to commercialized garbage, and how its social commentary is superficial and essentially irrelevant.

In some ways it seems as if the media was primed to hate the film even before it came out. Huang Huang wondered about this in his review, and critic Zeng Zihang, who is currently attached to CCTV-6, has speculated in his blog about whether slamming Zhang Yimou is simply the fashionable thing to do these days. Those critics who liked the film - or who found something meaningful to say about it - seemed to be in the minority. Raymond Zhou, noted film critic and China Daily columnist, sees the split reaction as inevitable:

Some viewers may be excited by Zhang Yimou's new movie Curse of the Golden Flower, while others may be perplexed or disappointed, but I would say that it is hard not be moved at all. This is quite possible a work that inspires an extreme response, for everyone sees something different in it. Some people will see a Freudean complex (father-killing and mother-marrying), other a false picture of security (the continual calling, noisier than prayer, like a great propaganda machine); some will see an emphasis on harmony (using a carpet of fresh flowers to cover over the scars of battle), others a praise or criticism of the order and rules (the movie's family scenes). Foreigners who are not well-acquainted with Chinese culture will see only a family soap-opera full of coincidences and lifted out of Shakespeare's tragedies (for example, the three siblings are taken from King Lear and the jealous king from Othello, while the scheming queen references Macbeth and the carnage in the palace resembles Hamlet). Of course, they do not know that it is Cao Yu's work that Old Zhang has returned to Shakespearean tradition.

Zhou has been collecting reviews of the movie on his blog and has discovered that the reactions of filmgoers fall into seven levels of understanding:

Seven layers of Curse of the Golden Flower

  1. Great movie, very showy and quite watchable;
  2. The grand display of Chinese culture - the rainbow-feathered costumes, carved and painted architecture, and Chinese medicine - is inspiring to behold;
  3. Dazzling, dizzying, and disgusting;
  4. The opulence on display in the film is repugnant;
  5. Good fails to defeat evil in the movie; it advocates despotism. The error of this postion is nauseating;
  6. The movie criticizes despotism and inspires awe;
  7. The movie is an allusion to a particular political incident that can only be implied but not stated outright.

The particular political incident, of course, is what Huang Huang makes reference to in his review.

Some other critical reactions:

· Dou Jiangming, who didn't care much for Zhang's Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, sees in Golden Flower a "mass-exercise aesthetic":

Coincidentally, the setting, like The Banquet, is in the Five Dynasties. The Five Dynasties, a time of chaos, provides a convenient historical backdrop for the stories. However, in the case of Banquet, the setting was chosen only for the indulgence of the script and effects (the spike punishment scene is a prime example of this indulgence), while in Golden Flower, the chaos worked to remove the feeling of history. Since we find it hard to connect to historical figures with whom we are familiar, if there is an appropriate insinuation (whether or not it truly is), we have an easier time connecting it to any particular point in history. The chrysanthemums covering the palace courtyard, the scene of the warriors facing each other decked out in golden and silver armor, the extras drawn from the army who moved in unison was enough to give me a vision that I had moved in time, back to the grand scene of Tian'anmen at the 40th anniversary of the country, or the opening ceremony of the Asian Games.

Setting Golden Flower at that time gave the film a feeling of being beyond history (but not beyond reality). Chow Yun-fat's emperor was not just some man of some dynasty and empire; he became rather the epitome of "that one" throughout China's grand, long history. And the dark story, the commanding the queen to take poison-bearing medicine, exceeded any particular dynastic backdrop and became a Diary of a Madman-like parable of "cannibalism" in Chinese history. Within this extra-historical feeling, criticism of traditional Chinese politics and civilization gained expanded dimension of time (even to the point of having the feeling of using the past to satirize the present; there's no need to keep quiet about the fact that contemporary China inherits that part of the 5000 years of history, too).
...
The last scene of the battle between the golden-clad army and the silver-clad army is completely unlike the scenes of battle with which we are familiar. It is a perfect example of the "mass-exercise aesthetic" style. The camera fixes on Jay Chou's prince as he leads a coup; there are no close-ups of the warriors involved in the coup. The camera is essentially frozen. No shots of their agony and death-cries, no martyrs or heroics. "Cut down like grass."

Jay Chou leads the force into battle like an honor guard - he raises his staff, and the golden armor surges forward, surges to be ruthlessly slaughtered.

Just like a mass-games performance.

Cold-blooded in the extreme.

Dou goes on to discuss the final clean-up scene, seeing it in much the same way as Huang Huang. But he adds a postscript:

I've had this piece written for a while, editing it over and over, and talking it over with friends during the writing process. Yesterday, a friend I have not seen face-to-face for a while said to me on MSN, "If we've spent that much money to tell the public that good cannot overcome evil, then the director is a real bastard." Suddenly, that iciness I felt when watching the film returned, and I once again shivered.

Yes, because of that intentional iciness, I have decided to add this postscript, withdrawing all of the praise I have given to Golden Flower. It is with great disappointment that I finally have found the correct posture I should have toward this movie: turn my back on it.

In a more recent post, Dou points out five similarities shared the recent blockbusters Hero, House of Flying Daggers, The Promise, The Banquet and Golden Flower: (1) Huge box-office accompanied by a critical slag-fest; (2) a mainstream aesthetic; (3) an absolute position with respect to the masses; (4) the main character is a king; (5) the creator is a "king". He concludes:

The creators are always misunderstood, particularly Zhang Yimou, who did three of the blockbusters. Each of his films has sincerely taken into account the opinions of critics. For example, thematically, Golden Flower is the complete opposite of Hero, with its lance directed at those in power. But criticism was just as sharp, and parodies were just as savage.

This is because the Chinese-style blockbuster, born into the new century, bears the unmistakable birthmark of contemporary China. It is being used as a transitional vehicle, at which and anger and dissatisfaction at life and disdain and distaste for the authorities are given vent. This is movie-watching with Chinese characteristics, to take a blockbuster way too seriously.

· Li Yi, who writes for Beijing Youth Daily, does not see the movie as a success, and identifies character interactions as the root cause of the its failure:

The reservations that have been raised about Zhang Yimou mostly center around his narrative skills; his earlier movies were adaptated from novels, so there was a guarantee of quality. Once he switched to original, commercial wuxia, he lost it. This is the most widespread viewpoint, but I think that it doesn't get to the heart of the matter. In Zhang Yimou's films, the role of women is critical....If Golden Flower had been produced according to Zhang Yimou's temperament, then I am certain that Gong Li's role would have been enlarged - this is what the two of them are most adept at. From this point of view, the Zhang Ziyi-dominated Banquet has more of a resemblance to a Zhang Yimou "return" to costume drama. But in the hands of producer Zhang Weiping, Zhang Yimou was not able to accomplish that. With Chow Yun-fat on board, the older male character was not concealed, as in Raise the Red Lantern or weak and impotent as in Ju Dou; throughout Golden Flower, the emperor maintained an aura of strength. Thus the scene in which third prince Yuancheng kills Yuanxiang, though "unexpected," is nevertheless not shocking enough by far. The subsequent scene in which Yuancheng pours out his anguish to his parents over their disregard reflects even more the thinness of the tension. I also feel that Chow's character was something of an impossibility for Zhang; compared to Ju Dou, the emperor beating his son here seems unneccessary.

Actors are crazy, and viewers are idiots. This saying was not originally meant as a critical appraisal, but applied to the interaction between producers and viewers in the mainland, it carries a different implication. In the opinion of the emperor and crown prince in Golden Flower, the queen is crazed, and the medicine lifted out of Thunderstorm is been given an enlarged role in the movie, providing Gong Li with an excellent reason for a performance wracked with convulsions, always biting her lower lip. There are always parallels, and in all fairness Goldern Flower is essentially Zhang Yimou's early film ideas in a more luxuriant mode, and compromised by the rules of commercialization. But this is not a repeatable method, and it cannot establish a model. For a director who holds inexaustable resources in his hands to turn in this kind of submission is beneficial neither to himself nor to Chinese commercial cinema.

Interestingly, even most of the critics who write off Golden Flower as garbage make mention of the power of the scene in which palace workers replace the carnage of battle with fresh chrysanthemums. In his original review for China Daily, Raymond Zhou concluded with the following observation:

The important thing is: Is Zhang Yimou extolling, as many believe he did in "Hero," or is he implicitly critical of it?

That may determine whether this swirl of swindle and swordplay with a sea of chrysanthemums in the backdrop turns out to be a soap opera with a grand budget or a grand opera with a disturbing political message.

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There are currently 8 Comments for Ways of looking at Curse of the Golden Flower.

Comments on Ways of looking at Curse of the Golden Flower

If its soooo bad, then why is it the most successful domestic film in Chinese history? LOL

Is it just me, or is Chinese criticism completely opaque to everyone else, too?

Sometimes I accept that I'm missing references that people understand implicitly in repressive times - I had no idea that Huang Huang was raising the spectre of a real political incident of 18 years ago. That is perhaps just me not being familiar enough with the literature and the discourse around it.

But I don't understand why all these other critics quoted seem to dance around the issue so much: CGF is awful because the script is a) overblown (inflating Cao Yu's small town melodrama on a huge scale just shows up the flaws in it) and b) completely fails to flatter the actors. There is one bona fide actor/star in the film, which is Gong Li (Chow Yun Fat is cool but doesn't act, ever; Jay Chow is a popstar; the others aren't worth mentioning) and for a good third of the film, she is given no lines, but required to breathe hysterically at whatever happens around her.

I make no claims to be a great film critic, but I do reckon that what I've said there actually addresses what's in the film. Are there any Chinese critics who do this? And when they don't, as in the examples quoted in this post, what are they trying to do? I've lived here long enough to be able to read through dodgy translation most of the time, but I honestly have no idea what the critics quoted here are trying to get at, nor even on what level they are engaging with the film.

I would not equate popularity with quality. Personally I think his latest films are horrible, sad to think this is the same guy who made some of my favorite all time films back in the day.

Phil: There are definitely reviews out there that do what you've said; these here are trying to explain either (a) why it's an intruiguing film despite its flaws, or (b) what led Zhang Yimou, once a good director, to destroy Thunderstorm with crappy CGI and poor casting.

The opacity is probably because I've only quoted selections from these two reviews here (Huang Huang's was posted in its entirety, which I'll grant is pretty fragmented to begin with). And I wouldn't rule out a dodgy translation, either.

I haven't seen any of those blockbusters, only Thousands, but from reading this and thinking about what friends have said, I get the feeling that there's the expectation or assumption or even lingering hope that Zhang Yimou hasn't completely sold out, and that if anyone's going to blow the lid off that which has no name, assuming it'll happen eventually, the sooner the better, it's probably going to be him, or that he's in the best position to do so, thus the disposition to reviews of his (though not only his) movies. Is it about those who still have faith in him PK those who don't and look elsewhere? Maybe he's stacking his hand, biding his time. If he does pull it off, he'll go down in history...and make a bundle..

I am a fervent reader of chinese history and culture.
When speaking about chinese culture I think most of us westerners, even the "informed" intellectuals, only manage to scratch the surface of the vast and complex psyche it represents and which is far more different from ours than we imagine.
A little knowledge about the function of symbolism in chinese culture goes a long way to understanding the incredible universality of this film and its ability to plant durable beacons in our searching minds. Like many great films it needs to be seen several times to be fully appreciated.
Of course the splendour the colours and the opulence are overwhelming (they exist all over the world at all times), the violence is extreme (yet very far from that of a Mel Gibson or other western film makers who almost force you to eat the gore they splash on the screen). The plot and the dialogues are thin, but necessarily so, in order to guide the viewer to the essence of the many messages there are to read.
The messages are not just meant for a particular group, place or time, but for all who wonder about the road of human destiny we have followed for centuries in all cultures and continue to follow for better or for worse.
By analogy and opposition, Zhang Yimou creates a series of metaphors that speak to us about our human condition.
It is a poignant commentary on human pride and on human acceptance. Our western obsession to reduce everything to a combat between good and evil misses the classical chinese principle of balance between opposites. Without the suffering of acceptance the visciousness of pride would generate no repulsion and vice versa.
Without going into a long analysis of each character, here are some of the symbols I understood.
1. Among other things, the forbidden city is the mythological centre of the universe. The original design of the palaces and courtyards was meant to demonstrate to all who enter that they stand on the soil linking earth to the divine beyond.
2. Among other things, the emperor is the symbol of male pride and obsession and many other human "qualities" which men cherish even today.
3. Among other things, the empress is the symbol of female suffering and determination in the face of destruction and death.
4. The courtyard is the simple stage where the battles between opposing forces are fought. Here there is no vast western battlefield trying to "copy" history, only an analogy in which extreme colour creates extreme poignancy and the human scale of a courtyard reinforces the power of the message - much more effectively than the most elaborate Tolstoyian battle.
5. The flower is the symbol of peace and life, cherished even by the emperor, to the point where he cannot open his eyes after the battle until the perfect order and beauty of the ritual of the flower-covered courtyard has returned.
6. The emperor is a tyrant with excessive power, but his apparent omnipotence is very fragile. He is only a captain who married for power, thus not a legitimate ruler in the eyes of the people. His hope for fame through succession is destroyed in one day. His very life depends on the hourly coersion he can muster to control the lives of his own family.
6. The universal principles written by the paired hands of the emperor and the empress during the sacred ceremony confirm the framework within which the society is called to function, for better or for worse. Both accept the ritual and recognise the universality of the priciples, not as emperor and empress but as the male and female representatives of humankind. Inspite of their personal plight, they honour the duty to which their title calls them.
Surely there are clear parallels with Greek tragedy and the relation between fate and the powerlessness of man.
We witness the fleetingness of the most extraordinary human effort when respect for balance is lost. We are not called to rise up, only to open our eyes and ears and to reflect.
Thank you Zhang Yimou for a work of art, for a flower which can bloom in the heart.

The last posting is very good. I think the movie is great. I liked also Hero, because of the ambiguity and moral complexity in it. There were several hidden messages and layers in it - many things were only hinted.
In the culture where it is not freedom of speech you should take the subject from history. Then you must use allegories and metaphors in your movies. Colors, for example, seem to hint something in almost all in Zhang's movies.They are also important in CGF.

Thus, though there is luxury in this film, the total thing is symbolic, allegorical and saying hidden some things.

i'm a student writing a report for this move...i would say that this movie is a bit too much brutal. there is too much blood and there seem to be no peace. i like shakesphere's tragic stories, but the scenes are not all tragic...sometimes his story is great is making it tragic like, Romeo and Juliet...they died but it's okay because if they lived...people will still get trough their way of love....anyway..this story, The curse of the Golden Flower, it's tragic alright..but there is no sense in making it tragic! I mean what is the point when it's not going to make a great cause...it's okay if it makes sense...but the tragic in this movie doesn't.

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