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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Zhang Yimou is a visual poet. His movies, including Hero and House of Flying Daggers, arenít just good-looking; theyíre breathtakingly gorgeous. The director is known for his intense use of color as a way of invoking certain emotions (which he likewise heightens). Imagine someone drawing on a piece of celluloid with a box of Crayola crayons and you begin to conceive the style. Curse of the Golden Flower follows appropriately in this tradition. It is stunning to look at, yet also filled with the kind of drama (verging on melodrama) that we expect.

Set during the 10th century, Chow Yun-Fat plays the Emperor of the Tang dynasty. He has secretly been putting a poison into the medication of his wife, the Empress (Gong Li). She drinks her medicine every hour, but doesnít understand why sheís not feeling better. The Emperor, it turns out, has a long history of using women, only to take severe methods of dispatching with them once he has lost interest. He cannot murder the Empress outright, though; her father is a king, and the Emperorís power and wealth come from being married to her. She must appear to die of natural causes.

When the Empress discovers the poison plot, she approaches one of the three princes (all of whom were born to another woman and believe their natural mother to be dead). Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye) is set to inherit the title someday, but canít fathom his fatherís actions. He agrees to help the Empress because he physically canít stand to see her knowingly drink the poison. Middle prince Jai (Jay Chou) doesnít react so favorably. Heís been having an incestuous affair with his stepmother, all while courting the daughter of the imperial doctor. He wants more responsibility and therefore does not want to get on his fatherís bad side. The youngest prince is Yu (Qin Junjie), who seems out of the loop but is more observant than anyone gives him credit for. The Empress plans to bring her husband down during the Chrysanthemum Festival, an annual celebration. The Emperor, however, is very powerful and does not take kindly to having his power jeopardized, especially when his wife and one of his sons are behind it.

Curse of the Golden Flower has sex, violence, political intrigue, family drama, incest, sibling rivalry, betrayal, and revenge. Is it a soap opera? In a way, I suppose, although the film is much classier and more artistic than that label would imply. Zhang Yimou amplifies these things as a stylistic device. Heís interested in exploring the way human passions can sometimes overpower his characters, causing them to act in outsized ways. He likes big drama. House of Flying Daggers looked like a grand love story until its concluding tragedy made you realize that it was really about the pain of loss. This one is about loyalty. The princes have to decide whether to defend their stepmother and risk their fatherís wrath, or stay in his good graces and watch the woman who raised them be slowly poisoned to death.

All this drama plays out amidst some of the most beautiful sets you will ever see. Color just pops from everything in the film, including the detailed costumes. Some scenes take place outside the palace, where yellow chrysanthemums fill the massive courtyard. There is an epic feel to the movieís visuals that really helps you become absorbed by it. Even if you chose not to read the subtitles or follow the story, you could still enjoy the film purely from an aesthetic point of view.

Although it has less martial arts than Hero, there is still some action in Curse of the Golden Flower. The best sequence is a massive battle that concludes the movie. Tens of thousands of warriors clash on that field of chrysanthemums, their blood staining the flowers. Blood staining that which is beautiful Ė itís an apt metaphor for the plot.

Color and action mean relatively little if you donít care about the story, but that wasnít a problem here. I found myself really caught up in The Empressí attempts to free herself from the husband who is covertly harming her. Gong Li is excellent in the role, and Chow Yun-Fat is perfect as the power-mad Emperor. I genuinely cared about what happened to them. The movie ends with a symbolic shot that leaves a few things ambiguous, yet nevertheless indicates how the Empress has changed inside. Curse of the Golden Flower is dramatic and exotic, a feast for the eyes with themes that are as hypnotic as the filmís physical look.

( 1/2 out of four)

Curse of the Golden Flower is rated R for violence. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.

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