January 11, 2007

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Curse of the Golden Flower (R)
Director Yimou Zhang (he of House of Flying Daggers and Hero) creates another screamingly vibrant epic about loyalty, honor, love and amazing costumes in Curse of the Golden Flower.

Itís shortly before the turn of the last millennium and the imperial palace is a seething mass of Tennessee Williams-like emotions. The emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) is trying to slowly poison into senselessness the empress (Li Gong) via a poisoned tea. The empress is entwined in an incestuous affair and a coup plot. The emperorís oldest son (Ye Liu) is something of a wuss with no desire to lead and the emperorís second son (Qin Junjie) is perhaps a little too antsy about taking the throne. And then thereís prince number three, a quiet kid who always seems to be underfoot during the drama.

Actually, the empress is part of only one of two incestuous affairs and one of two wives with elaborate secrets that could destroy their families. Though chock full of sword fights and battles that seem to take place apart from gravity, Curse of the Golden Flower is quite the bodice-ripping telenovela. In Zhangís movies, beneath all the killing is usually a very soap-opera-like love story. Like his other, most recent martial arts pot boilers, Curse of the Golden Flower hides its silliness in exotic and extravagant costumes, set pieces that are glowing gems of color and extras that number in the Cecile B. DeMille range. That something so kingly, so, well, imperial would offer up the same kind of surprise siblings and back-from-the-dead appearances as All My Children doesnít register while you watch masked assassins slide down ropes to attack a country estate.

And even when you do realize youíre watching every Greek tragedy fried together in a hash with a William Faulkner sauce, the overheated nature of the plot is really not that distracting. Chow Yun-Fat and Li Gong throw themselves into their roles with the scenery-chomping verve of old-fashioned melodrama. Bosoms heave, brows furrow and gasps fly as fast as kicks. You ooo at the football-field-sized courtyards full of chrysanthemums, you aaaaaah at the rows of concubines wearing impossibly shiny dresses and ornate hairdos. You thrill to the fact that this much sudsiness is accompanied by fountains of cherry-red stage blood.

Curse of the Golden Flower is a circus, a parade, a crazy ice capade of color and emotion. Itís a celebration of large, a jubilant festival of big action, big drama and big visuals. Itís an epic that doesnít require serious thought, just rapt attention. B+

Rated R for violence (and lots of it). Directed by Yimou Zhang and written by Yu Cao and Yimo Zhang, Curse of the Golden Flower is an hour and 54 minutes long and is distributed by Sony Classic Pictures in limited release. It will begin a run at Wilton Town Hall Theatre on Friday, Jan. 12.