In case The Queen or Marie Antoinette somehow left you wondering, Curse of the Golden Flower is here to let you know that royalty doesn’t have it easy. The tenth-century royals in Zhang Yimou’s new film are as fraught as those from Shakespeare, or even real life — affairs, power struggles, and incest abound between the stern Emperor (Chow Yun Fat, using his stoicism for privileged menace), his wife (a gorgeously imperious Gong Li), and three princes from a variety of marriages.
Of course, Yimou is known for a poetry more visual than verbal, which renders some of this palace plotting unnecessarily talky. In one scene, an exchange that essentially consists of “why are you doing this?” answered with “I won’t say” manages to last minutes. Moments like this contribute to a mid-film dry spell; it’s Shakespeare in the outlines and B-movie in (or between) the executions.
But simply watching Curse of the Golden Flower is a joy, and not because Yimou reprises tricks from his Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Despite the immediate immersion in opulence, the camera zipping through the royal halls announces Flower as something less solemn and formalized than his other recent epics. In place of elegance, there is luridness; where once we saw battles fought with flight and scarves, we now have ninja assassins swooping in on ropes and slicing everyone to bits. Emotional involvement is minimal (and, like Hero, it features a tacit endorsement of monarchy), but the new film’s treachery and bloodshed is more memorable (and more fun) than the romanticism of Flying Daggers. The lack of Oscar bait is just what December — and Yimou — needs.