All About Face

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What, exactly, is Zhang Yimou trying to tell us? After years of making films about intimate oppressions that frequently got him in trouble with Chinese censors (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern), in 2002 Zhang made Hero, a dazzling wire-fu epic that was also an appalling paean to authoritarianism and the "One China" policy of subjugating Tibet and Taiwan. The film was widely seen as a temporary capitulation, a way to get the government off his back once and for all. And indeed, his next epic, House of Flying Daggers, eschewed such politicking, even making the (implicit) point that the loves and betrayals of individuals are of greater importance than the clash of imperial armies.

And yet, here we are again. Zhang's latest film, Curse of the Golden Flower (now out on DVD), does not kowtow to tyranny as explicitly as Hero, but the similarities are difficult to miss: another murderous emperor, another rebellious hero, another devious conspiracy--and another concluding moral that is, at best, morally dubious.

Perhaps in part because he recognizes his story's dark message, Zhang spends most of the film steeping us in actual colors so preternaturally vivid that one may be inclined to turn down the brightness on the TV. Zhang has always used color to dazzling effect (the bolts of dyed cloth unrolling from the sky in Ju Dou, for instance, or the blood-red leaves that whirl around the combatants in Hero), but here it is an experience bordering on ocular assault. The primary setting is an imperial palace in 928 A.D., a city-sized dwelling constructed largely of Chinese art glass--lemony yellows, watermelon pinks, candy-apple crimsons. If the set designers are to be believed, being a royal in the Tang dynasty was a lot like living inside a bag of Jolly Ranchers.

There's nothing sweet about palace life, however. Accused by the emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) of suffering from anemia, the empress (Gong Li) has for years been required to drink a medicinal tea every two hours. Lately, the bitter brew has been secretly supplemented, at the emperor's command, with a poisonous mushroom that will slowly debilitate and eventually kill her. The roots of his marital dissatisfaction are never explicit, but they presumably have something to do with the fact that for three years the empress has been sleeping with the crown prince (Liu Ye), the emperor's son from a previous marriage. Meanwhile, the emperor's second son (and empress's eldest), Prince Jai (Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou) has returned from the warfront, where he was sent by his father for an undisclosed infraction. Restored to his mother's bosom (the film's otherwise extravagant costume design takes a minimalist turn when it comes to bodices), Jai is soon enlisted into her conspiracy to overthrow his father. On the margins, the third and youngest prince (Junjie Qin) stews silently about the fact that no one (least of all the script) pays much attention to him.

Zhang lets the competing machinations unfold in high operatic style, with the characters alternating between venomous stares and wild, emotional outbursts. Less an action film than Hero and (much) less a romantic adventure than House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower instead fashions itself a kind of Shakespearian melodrama. Yet while the performances by all-star leads Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat are powerful, they are archetypal in the bad sense: Neither ever really emerges as a distinct human being.

Although the plot features twists and counter-twists, none are quite so clever or surprising as those in Zhang's two earlier epics. There's also little in the way of striking combat scenes until halfway through, when a small army of black-clad assassins wielding scythes and grappling hooks begin rappelling from the sky like malignant spiders. They eventually clash with a larger army clad in gold, which itself winds up battling a still-larger army clad in silver. Such mass scenes--not only of soldiers, but also, earlier, of thousands of uniformed servants moving in unison--are among the most arresting of the film, but in an age increasingly jaded by digitized throngs they are fast losing their ability to awe.

Despite its flaws, Curse of the Golden Flower is a diverting enough film, just somewhat flat compared to Zhang's previous epics--a little too willing, perhaps, to let story and action cede the field to costume and set design. The film's conclusion, however, undermines any accumulated goodwill, offering a lesson both emotionally unsatisfying and morally troubling.

(Spoiler alert, for those who haven't already seen it coming.)

In the end, the rebellion plotted by the empress and Prince Jai is brutally put down by the emperor. He offers to spare Jai on one condition: That he personally serve his mother her poisonous medicine until her death. Jai instead commits suicide; the empress goes mad. With his other two sons also gone (one horribly beaten to death by himself), the emperor is left victorious but alone on his blood-soaked throne.

Taken on its own, this exceptionally unsatisfying ending might not suggest anything further. But for anyone who's seen Hero, the thematic parallels are evident. Unlike its predecessor, Curse of the Golden Flower is a familial rather than geopolitical drama, so its emperor is not presented as a genocidal despot. Yet, underneath the sympathetic, heavy-lies-the-crown portrayal (shades again of Hero) is a monster, whose murderous efforts against wives past and present (among other crimes) make Rudy Giuliani look like the ideal husband. Indeed, though the emperor is presented as in many ways more honorable than his adversaries, he is without question the most ruthless and homicidal character in the film.

Just as in Hero, this tyrant is nearly overthrown by a brave young warrior motivated by only the best of intentions (love of his homeland in the earlier film, love of his mother in the latter). But, once again, the heroic rebel is doomed not merely to death, but to a death the movie strongly suggests he deserves. Jai's demise may have a more tragic resonance than the perversely celebratory self-sacrifice of Nameless in Hero, but it is not presented as unjust. "I always knew this was not a battle I could have won," Jai declares, moments before killing himself.

Is this the message Zhang Yimou wishes to offer his country about the value of dissent? It's a difficult charge to direct at the one-time quasi-dissident, but one increasingly hard not, at least, to contemplate. Zhang has, after all, done awfully well for himself since the apparent political capitulation of Hero. That film was the highest-grossing in China of all-time; its echo, Curse of the Golden Flower, had a larger budget than any in the nation's history, enabling Zhang to employ thousands of extras and construct a gargantuan outdoor set of the palace grounds. Perhaps most impressive (and suggestive) of all, Zhang has been tapped to co-direct (with military choreographer Zhang Jigang) the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a spectacle upon which the Chinese government could hardly place a higher premium. Is this incentive enough for him to tell stories that will make Beijing happy?

Twice in the first ten minutes of his film, Zhang announces the moral it will ultimately (and surprisingly) espouse. The first is an exchange between the empress and the crown prince, in which she asserts, "Many things can be changed," only to be corrected by the prince: "In fact, nothing can be changed." Moments later, the emperor lectures Prince Jai: "There are many things in Heaven and Earth, but you can only have what I choose to give you." Taken together, these scenes offer a clear message: Take what the state offers and be content, for nothing you do can ever change it. It's hard not to read this as a reassurance to China's authoritarian rulers--and an implicit warning to any who might oppose them.

The Home Movies List: A Fistful of Zhang

    Ju Dou (1990). An intimate melodrama about a powerless woman and her lover, both enslaved to the cruel will of her husband. A political parable? The Chinese government evidently thought so, suppressing the film. It was nonetheless nominated, over Chinese objections, for Best Foreign Language Film.

    Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Zhang's early masterpiece. Another story about the trapped wife of a powerful man, but this time the man himself is largely absent and her primary oppressor is the "system." Little wonder that this film, too, was initially banned from release in China despite another Oscar nomination.

    Shanghai Triad (1995). Zhang's seventh movie, and seventh featuring Gong Li, with whom he conducted a long and public affair. The film, a somewhat haphazard tale about a gangster and his nightclub-singer moll, marked the end of the affair and the end (for a decade, anyway) of the collaboration.

    House of Flying Daggers (2004). Less jaw-dropping than Hero, perhaps, but equally beautiful and ultimately more human. Andy Lau and Takeshi Kineshiro are well-paired as yin and yang deputies, and Zhang Ziyi has never been lovelier.
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