Were you knocked out by Hero? Bowled over by House Of Flying Daggers? Then you won’t want to miss Curse Of The Golden Flower, the concluding part of Zhang Yimou’s epic wuxia trilogy. Overflowing with sumptuous visuals, chop-socky mayhem and the finest CG battle since The Return Of The King, it’s a lavish, lurid, eye-saucering spectacular which fully deserves its Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design and the record-breaking success it’s enjoyed in its native China.
If there’s a problem here, it’s in the storytelling – not Yimou’s strongest suit since he embraced action cinema, as anyone who tried to make sense of Hero’s contradictory, Rashômon-style narrative will attest. Set a thousand years ago at the tail end of China’s Tang dynasty, it’s an unnecessarily complex yarn that sees Emperor Chow Yun Fat’s plot to poison unfaithful spouse Gong Li instigate a coup d’etat involving his three sons, one of whom (Liu Ye) is having it away with both stepmom Li and the daughter of the Imperial Doctor (Li Man). Further intrigue is provided by the reappearance of the Emperor’s embittered ex-wife (Chen Jin) before matters resolve themselves in the mother of all scraps, with Chow’s legions of hooded ninjas taking on Gong’s gold-brocaded army in the chrysanthemum-decked courtyard of the Royal Palace.
For all the seething passions and deadly enmities on display, however, the result is a soapy affair that reduces the destructive strife of a mighty kingdom to one big dysfunctional family squabble.
Without a context to justify the conflict it’s hard to feel that anything much is at stake, especially as the claustrophobic action rarely strays beyond the confines of the Emperor’s digs. Yimou cuts loose here, filling the screen with lavish compositions positively dripping with decadent extravagance and ornate detail. But he imprisons the viewer with his over-egged gilded cage metaphor, your sensibilities ending up on the receiving end of a royal ass-whupping.
At its best, though – a stunning aerial assault that sees ninja commandos swooping down from the heavens, for example, or a one-on-one swordfight between Chow Yun Fat and middle son Jay Chou – Golden Flower crackles with tension and excitement. What’s more, fans of Yimou’s earlier, more character-based work will be thrilled to see him reunited with former muse and lover Gong Li for the first time since 1995’s Shanghai Triad.