With masterpieces such as Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern, and To Live, director Zhang Yimou and his glamorous star and one-time paramour Gong Li established themselves as a director-muse pairing for the ages, joining the likes of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, and D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish. But a full decade has passed since the two parted ways after 1995's Shanghai Triad, and Zhang has become another filmmaker, devoting himself alternately to small-scale, sentimental dramas like Not One Less, Happy Times, and Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles, and the lavish martial-arts extravaganzas Hero and House Of Flying Daggers. Their long-awaited reunion for Curse Of The Golden Flower splits the difference between Zhang's recent endeavors, awkwardly fusing overwrought Shakespearean drama with elaborate martial-arts clashes. At times, this makes Curse Of The Golden Flower look like two different movies, though it should be said that both are ravishingly beautiful.
Generally remembered for her emotional reserve in Zhang's films, Gong brings a surprisingly raw theatricality to her performance as an empress whose failing health dovetails with extreme martial and familial dysfunction. In the days leading up to the annual Chrysanthemum Festival, Gong welcomes the return of her devoted son (Jay Chou), but the reunion is spoiled by ongoing betrayals. The empress has been having an affair with her stepson, the crown prince Liu Ye, who in turn intends to run off with the daughter of the imperial doctor. Meanwhile, the emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) has ordered that doctor to taint the empress' medicine with a black fungus that will gradually mentally incapacitate her. All of this somehow leads to an epic clash between armies, which reflects the sharp divisions within the royal family.
That may sound confusing, and it unfortunately doesn't clear up in the telling. Zhang used to be one of the world's nimblest storytellers, but he's so wrapped up in the stunning décor and choreographed ritual that he loses his grip on the nuts-and-bolts labor of plot and character development. It seems especially perverse to cast Chow, the great icon of Hong Kong action cinema, in a role that mostly freezes him in place. Beyond the confused melodrama, however, lie some of the most dazzling images Zhang has conjured: An imperial palace bursting with primary colors and embroidered wall coverings, a black-hooded army descending from the sky on grapple-hooked ropes, a courtyard filled with yellow chrysanthemums overwhelmed by waves of red-armored warriors. Few filmmakers could produce so grand a spectacle, but Zhang used to be good for more than just eye candy.