Until relatively recently, acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou ('Ju Dou') was known for his intimate dramas and character studies. That changed in 2002 with the release of his critically acclaimed actioner 'Hero,' the first of three films that together form an unofficial Wushu trilogy. In 2004, 'House of Flying Daggers' became the next entry in this pseudo-series of martial arts epics and was greeted with similar fanfare. By the time 'Curse of the Golden Flower' was released theatrically in 2006 as the final piece of the trilogy, expectations among critics and fans alike were insanely high, to say the least.
'Curse of the Golden Flower' focuses on a fictional royal family in China during the 10th century. The Emperor (Chow Yun Fat), a kind but merciless war hero, struggles to maintain control of his family. It seems his young bride (Gong Li) is having an affair with his son, Prince Wan (Liu Ye) and he's determined to put an end to their treachery. When he chooses to secretly begin poisoning his wife, the loyal Prince Jai begins to notice the Empress's bad health and obsession with yellow chrysanthemums. With the family pulled in two directions, each son must decide whether they will remain loyal to their father or join forces with a rebellion being orchestrated by the poisoned Empress.
To be honest, the story is quite complicated -- there's so much treachery, incest, and deceit that it can be hard to keep track of it all. Upon its original release, some critics dragged the film over hot coals for this same reason and audiences were split as to whether they loved or hated the complex storylines.
However, if you stick with the characters, a commanding tale emerges, making the third act particularly riveting. By the time the credits rolled, I had come to realize that 'Curse of the Golden Flower' is essentially a Shakespearean tragedy told in reverse. The film is clearly inspired by "King Lear," but breaks away by flipping the classic play in a completely different direction.
Early on, fanatics of fight scenes and high-flying action beats may wonder what's going on with the film itself. Long, drawn out scenes of pomp and circumstance dominate the film and a lot of effort is focused on the ridiculously ornate trappings of the royal lifestyle. Eventually, there are some exciting martial arts scenes (a standing son spars with a seated father, the ninja attack, and the final castle siege pop to mind) to keep these people mildly happy, but the story remains the first priority. The sheer amount of plotting and characterization is likely turn off a few folks while engaging an entirely different audience.
Have patience though -- the rituals and order of this lifestyle are being established to contrast the boiling emotions inside of every character. When loyalties are finally declared and armies clash, it instantly reveals how volatile every relationship has become. As such, the film deftly emerges as a thorough examination of love, devotion, and sacrifice. Its climactic showdown is tense and features a fascinating performance of explosive rage from Chow Yun Fat.
I really enjoyed 'Curse of the Golden Flower' for what it is -- a tragic tale of a family in emotional crisis. Sure, it's packed with characters, subplots, and a seemingly-pointless ritualism up front, but it paid off for me. I was intrigued by the revenge, the hatred, and the violence that haunted each member of the royal family. I highly recommend the film to anyone who enjoyed 'Hero' and 'House of Flying Daggers,' but any patient fan of foreign films, Shakespeare, or Chow Yun Fat should give this one a spin as well.
When I first saw this disc's technical similarities to the much-reviled Blu-ray transfer of 'House of Flying Daggers,' I was more than a little concerned. Thankfully, I can confidently declare 'Curse of the Golden Flower' to be better all around in its high-def presentation. Presented in 1080p using the AVC codec, the film's transfer is packed with vibrant colors and sharp fine object detail (just take one look at Chow Yun Fat's intricate golden armor at the beginning of the film for a perfect example of both of these attributes in one shot). Background objects are distinguishable and crisp -- the cluttered palace is rendered exactly as it was in the theater. Patterns and textures are particuarly prevalent in the cinematography and the transfer handles them well. Skintones are natural, primaries are properly saturated, and the entire image has great contrast. As expected with a recent release, the source doesn't have any problems, scratches, or issues with distracting noise.
There are a few problems, but they're relatively minor. First, the black areas in the film are generally deep, but they intermittently cloud with grain and drift toward dark gray. Second, tiny patterns in the background occasionally produce a shimmering effect on the screen that can be somewaht distracting. Finally, there are handful of shadowy scenes that display a slight macroblocking in the dark expanses of the image. Luckily, these issues only appear in brief and infrequent doses, and don't take much away from the overall quality of this transfer.
This Blu-ray release of 'Curse of the Golden Flower' features several audio options -- a dubbed English Dolby Digital 5.1 track, a Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, and a robust Mandarin Uncompressed PCM 5.1 track. The PCM mix is the clear winner here -- the dubbing on the English track sounds too much like a studio recording and the Mandarin Dolby Digital mix doesn't have as much punch as the PCM track. The PCM mix has fuller ambiance, heavier bass tones, and clearer dialogue.
The thing that impressed me the most about this track was that sound effects were earthy and believable. Swords sounded completely different depending on their weight, arrows had a soft hiss, and armor clanged in a variety of ways depending on its material. On top of this, the film's score takes a hold of each channel and creates the illusion of listening to an orchestra in concert. Strings twill in the front, the percussion pounds in the subwoofer, and the other instrumentation wraps around the soundfield from all directions.
My only slight concern was with the disc's channel accuracy. In the final siege towards the end of the film, the soundscape grows cluttered and effects fill the soundfield rather than being focused in the channel they should originate from. It's certainly not a jarring problem, but one I caught occasionally during the film's loudest scenes.
Both the standard DVD and the Blu-ray release of 'Curse of the Golden Flower' come with only two featurettes -- a tiresome video of the film's "Los Angeles Premiere" (3 minutes) and a Making-Of video called "Secrets Within" (19 minutes). "Secrets Within" includes interviews with the cast and crew, behind-the-scenes footage, and fight choreography. It would be worth the time if it wasn't for an intrusive narrator that continuously promotes the film and explains the on-screen footage.
I thought 'Curse of the Golden Flower' was an excellent trio-capper to Zhang Yimou's foray into the world of the martial arts epic. Some fans of the genre may find it a bit slow-going at first, and somewhat hard to follow in its plotting, but if you stick with it, the film more than makes up for it in the end. This Blu-ray release may not have much in the way of supplemental material, but it certainly delivers on the bottom line, boasting a solid high-def transfer and an even better audio mix that brings the sights and sounds of the film to life.