Thoughts on Curse of the Golden Flower

I finally made it over to Cinemapolis on the Commons last week. Joe and I saw Curse of the Golden Flower there. The movie is set during the Tang dynasty in the late 10th century in China. Without giving away too much about the movie, I will say that it reminded me very much of a Chinese version of The Lion in Winter, which is one of my all-time favorite films. The difference, of course, is that there is a great deal more action in Curse of the Golden Flower–most likely because it is not based on a play. Incidentally, some of the musical themes reminded me of The Lion in Winter, too.

I think, for me, the most stunning aspect of the movie was the visuals. Almost the entire movie takes place in the Imperial City, and, while I can in no way claim to be an expert on medieval China, I was surprised by the color and decadence of the palace. Even the vast armies (and I do think that word is appropriate) of servants in the palace were respectably dressed, and the Imperial family themselves wore finery that King Louis would have envied eight-hundred years later. My basic conclusion was that Versailles in its heyday would have been given a serious run for its money. (As an aside: armor, swords, weapons, ninjas falling from the sky, yay!)

Although servants were not featured prominently in the film, they were one of the things that stuck out to me the most. The opening shots of the movie involve hundreds of young female servants getting up and dressing themselves for the day in a highly ritualized manner. The sheer numbers of servants that managed to appear almost out of nowhere throughout the film were astounding. (In case you couldn’t guess, having a visual representation of the sheer power the Emperor wielded made a big impression on me. I think, somehow, that Western historical films are somewhat lacking in that oh-my-God-what-an-overwhelming-number-of-people-at-one’s-command department, and I’m not sure whether that’s a reflection on differences between feudal/ancient power in the East and the West or simply the emphasis placed on such things in the movies.)

The acting was quite good, too, in my opinion. I found Gong Li’s performance as the ailing Empress to be particularly impressive. As Joe commented after the film, there were several points at which she almost seemed to be channeling Meryl Streep. And anyone who’s watched Streep in Sophie’s Choice knows she’s not a bad person to be channeling in a dramatic role.

Overall, I felt like the movie was well-worth the ticket, and I would recommend seeing it if you get the chance to. As for me, I’m now eagerly awaiting the premiere of Pan’s Labyrinth at Cinemapolis. Fairy tales come to life? Yes, please!

1 Responses to “Thoughts on Curse of the Golden Flower

  • Well, since I *have* studied medieval China, I think it’s worth tossing a few comments in after that analysis:

    So far as I can tell, the colors in the Imperial Palace were a very good historical extrapolation. The Silk Road (though it really blossomed in the following Song dynasty) existed by then and so there is archaeological evidence of brilliant fine silks with embroidery fine enough to make your fingers ache just from looking at it. Paintings from that period exist with faded, though still vibrant, colors. Color symbolism was also incredibly important, particularly the use of yellows and reds.

    It’s also worth noting that the Tang Dynasty’s several-hundred-year reign was interrupted when the *Empress* Wu seized power. But her ministers replaced her with Tang heirs in her later life. (Interesting note: compare a portrait of Empress Wu with Gong Li’s wardrobe!)

    The armies of servants, and the speed at which they get things done, also fit in with the period. Tang China was the heyday of the civil service exams and the idea of serving one’s country in a functional role, at any level of society. The Chinese Emperors often added the suffix -di to their names, which is a sort of mark of deification that began with the first emperor of China. So they expected to have things done, and they had hordes of people at their beck and call to do them. Much Chinese literature and art, throughout history, stresses the individual’s place as a member of a larger group (though, of course, there are exceptions, like Liu Bang, who basically instigated the rebellion against the second Qin Dynasty emperor). Again, fitting with what we know of Imperial China, and quite different from Western portraits of royalty!

    I have to say I thought it one-upped Lion in Winter. The Macbeth-esque element of tragedy at the end, the actual plot development…yeah.

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