by HELEN GEIB
My friends may be surprised to see me promoting the recently released Curse of the Golden Flower as DVD of the week. I was unenthusiastic after I saw it on its theatrical release, rating it emotionally uninvolving and a failure as a drama. As director Zhang Yimou’s follow-up to contemporary masterpieces House of Flying Daggers and Hero, it was a terrible disappointment. On the other hand, they may not be surprised, because I also extolled it as a triumphant cinematic achievement of awesome and haunting beauty. That paradox is what makes Curse of the Golden Flower an interesting movie to write about and my selection in a week that has no new releases we wanted to recommend.
Golden Flower has the dubious distinction of being one of the recent spate of films that turned out to be very different from the film promoted in the marketing campaign. I want to see the movie advertised by the trailer. That movie is a dramatic, exciting and romantic Chinese martial arts fantasy extravaganza in the vein of Hero and Flying Daggers. Golden Flower is a stodgy, claustrophobic Chinese imperial family classical tragedy and a throwback to the style of Zhang’s early work in films like Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad.
Raise the Red Lantern has many American admirers. If you are one of them, you will probably like Golden Flower a lot more than I did. I found it dull. Very dull. For example, on an intellectual level, I appreciate that there is a thematic purpose to devoting many, many minutes to illustrating the minutiae of a rigid, regimented and proscribed life trapped in the suffocating confines of a traditional Chinese societal group. Outside that corner of my mind I’m left feeling bored and depressed. That may well be how I’m supposed to feel, since it creates empathy with the characters, but it is not my ideal movie-watching experience.
If Golden Flower was only its substance, it would earn at best a middling review. Where Golden Flower succeeds – and succeeds splendidly, gloriously, breathtakingly – is at its surface. Golden Flower is an indescribably gorgeous film. It is the highest realization of cinema as visual art. Actors, sets and costumes provide the canvas and paint, with Zhang working in conjunction with the cinematographer, set designer, costumer and all the visual arts technicians as the painter. There were moments when I was moved almost to tears by the beauty of composition and color.
The only extras on the DVD are a making-of featurette and an English dub track. I would have thought neither extra would be of any interest to anyone if I had not read a user comment on Amazon applauding the inclusion of the English dub. Interest in the featurette remains unproven. Another of the comments came very close to capturing my own feelings in a pithy two line review: “So very pretty, such a let down. Hero and House of Flying Daggers were both so incredible that it was hard to believe it was from the same director.” I would make this qualification to her tagline ‘costumes do not make a good movie.’ Costumes don’t make good drama, but sometimes they make a good rental.
New releases this week: Black Snake Moan, Darwin’s Nightmare, Dead Silence, Peaceful Warrior, Pride, Shooter