Costing up to $45 million, Zhang Yimou’s historical epic about political intrigue set to the stunning backdrop of a decadent and corrupt Chinese Dynasty, is the most expensive Chinese film ever made, and in my opinion has to be one of the most expensive melodrama’s ever brought to the big screen. Having succeeded in mastering with a superior degree of majestic brilliance the martial arts genre in his previous two offering; Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou turns his focus to the Shakespearean power struggle that is contested by the embittered relationship between a ruthlessly malicious Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) and his grief stricken wife and Empress (Gong Li). Nobody can quite match Zhang Yimou’s bold energy that he regularly expresses through his daring use of colours and visual design, and The Curse of the Golden Flower is a glorious spectacle in terms of it’s sumptuous production design that authentically and meticulously brings to life the smallest of period detail. The sets, costumes, props and landscapes are simply breathtaking and though the film does make use of some computer generated imagery, it is deeply satisfying to see a film that largely places it’s faith in reconstructing the sense of an ‘epic’ spectacle through traditional cinematic means.
Zhang Yimou has worked closely with the Chinese Actress and film star, Gong Li, for a number of decades now, and together they have produced an eclectic and broad range of films that have firmly chosen to favour a female narrative which have dealt with the consequences of patriarchal society on a number of occasions. Gong Li was recently seen in her first Hollywood film, Miami Vice, playing the classical archetype of the hard-nosed business woman who allows herself to form a self destructive emotional attachment to one of the undercover detectives. It was a typically uninvolving role for an actress of her remarkable range and characteristic of how Hollywood has limited the types of roles available for credible actresses.
In Curse of the Golden Flower, Gong Li’s exquisitely multi layered performance seems to dominate a film that unfolds like a melodramatic soap opera. Gong Li plays an Empress who seems to live only in the confines of the palace walls, in fact, that is the only context in which we see her in the entire film, as she is subjugated by the abusive and demeaning constraints imposed upon her by the Emperor who is desperate to maintain his power. When she discovers that the Emperor has been trying to poison her so that she will go insane, she conspires with her son to overthrow the Emperor’s rule, but her plans for seeking revenge are short lived as the final battle reveals the untold military might of the Emperor is too much for the Prince. By the end of the film, the Empress realises that no matter what she does, patriarchal ideology is a natural rule of law in a society that treats women as property, and will continue to do so as long as the struggle for political power consumes anyone who dreams of challenging the status quo.
Gong Li is a remarkable actress and one of the greatest performers working today in cinema yet whenever lists are compiled of the best actors, she is reguarly overlooked, and perhaps this reveals a certain level of western bias towards over rated Hollywood and British actors. Interrogate Gong Li's filmography and you will find an incredibly dense and powerful series of female characters that have in some way challenged dominant female representations that have existed in Chinese cinema and that Hollywood continues to perpetuate in high concept blockbusters. One only needs to watch Gong Li's unforgettable performance in Yimou's nineties masterpiece, Raise The Red Lantern, to appreciate how the notion of 'screen presence' has become somewhat of a forgotten star quality.
For a film with a relatively large budget and an eye firmly on the international market, Zhang Yimou presents us with an uncompromising ending, one that clearly demonstrates that the best way of silencing those critics who have accused him of selling out is by suggesting that feminist acquiescence is a theme that by no means solely belongs in the spectrum of the art house film which has unfairly defined the majority of his career.