Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower takes place in what seems to be a 24-hour span preceding the Chrysanthemum Festival in the year 928 A.D. at the end of the Tang Dynasty. We are immediately plunged into action: The empress (Gong Li) is unwell, despire her daily medicine, and the emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) is returning. The crazy psychedelic colors of the palace's jade walls, accentuated with red and gold, swirl us into melodrama: sons in revolt, incest both witting and unwitting, plots and poison, and at the top of the pyramid, an unhappy autocrat.
Despite the lurid story and socko colors, the story plays out as an affecting drama, not as soap opera. The rituals of the court and Confucian mores dictate how the family acts and reacts, even in revolt, and Zhang shows us that. What he also gives us is spectacle: the codified life of the royal court, the sweep of the breathtaking landscape outside the palace, and of course some beautifully-orchestrated battle scenes, as well as some more intimate action moments. The film is pure entertainment served up on a historical platter, with action and intrigue enough to keep a non-Chinese audience enthralled. This is a knights and ladies costume epic, in essence.
Chow Yun-Fat is masterful as the embodiment of absolute power, never letting go or slipping. Gong Li is strong as the empress; she is the queen of hysterics as an actress. The actors who play the threee princes do well, too, although I preferred Liu Ye's beset Crown Prince to Jay Chou's warrior Prince Jia. In essence, Curse of the Golden Flower is a costume epic of kings and queens, creating its own world. And it's an engrossing one.