Worms and Vipers in a Gilded Tomb: Curse of the Golden Flower, the Film

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All that glisters [glitters] is not gold…
Gilded tombs do worms enfold
Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice

Apparently, royal families are similar no matter where or when they live. Despite their privilege, wealth, and power, many royals succumb to the basest of human emotions: envy, greed, hypocrisy, deceit. Living in gilded palaces, wearing elaborately expensive clothes and countless jewels, a royal can commit the same moral crimes as any base commoner: incest, adultery, betrayal, rebellion, murder. In Curse of the Golden Flower, director Zhang Yimou, who also co-wrote the film, examines a power struggle in the palace of China’s emperor in 928 C.E. on the eve of the Double Ninth Festival — the ninth day of the ninth lunar month — a traditional Chinese holiday also known as the Chrysanthemum Festival, originating from a folk-tale about a hero who defeated a monster on the ninth day of the ninth month. This day has become symbolically important in many Asian cultures because of its doubled-yang energy, which is considered potentially destructive.

Yin-yang symbol (Yin is the black side with the white dot in it, and yang is the white side with the black dot in it.)

According to the I Ching, a classic, ancient Chinese divination text, yin and yang represent the energies and principles of the universe, while the interaction of yin (negative, dark, and feminine) and yang (positive, bright, and masculine) influences the destinies of all creatures and things.

The relationship between yin and yang is often described in terms of sunlight playing over a mountain and a valley. Yin (literally the “shady place” or “north slope”) is the dark area occluded by the mountain’s bulk, while yang (literally the “sunny place” or “south slope”) is the brightly lit portion. As the sun moves across the sky, yin and yang gradually trade places with each other, revealing what was obscured and obscuring what was revealed.

When yin and yang energies are not balanced, when there is either too much shadow or too much light, the body can become ill, the universe is not in harmony, and seriously bad things can happen. The number 9 is considered to be a yang number, so the ninth day of the ninth month — a double 9 — has too much yang energy and is a potentially dangerous date, if only because the double yang energy is not balanced with sufficient yin energy. The Double Ninth — or Chrysanthemum — Festival is still considered potentially dangerous in Asian culture. To protect against danger, it is customary to drink chrysanthemum liquor, and wear the zhuyu [Chinese or Korean cornel dogwood] plant since both chrysanthemum and zhuyu are considered to have cleansing qualities and are used on other occasions to air out houses and cure illnesses.

Royal sons and Empress in Curse of the Golden Flower ©

The royal family in Curse of the Golden Flower is, in fact, concerned with clearing out and cleansing the royal house on the day of the Chrysanthemum Festival. The family is also desperate to cure the moral illnesses that seem to have infected its members. Instead of heroes destroying monsters as in the original folktale, however, Curse of the Golden Flower reveals that there are monsters in everyone, common and royal, and their interaction, no matter how well intentioned, is, indeed, dangerous.

The “cleansing” of the Chinese royal house in 928 C.E. is actually a power struggle between the Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat)

Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

and his beautiful but severely unhappy wife, the Empress Phoenix (Gong Li).

Empress Phoenix (Gong Li), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

Very early in the film, viewers learn that, with the help of the Imperial physician (Dahong Ni),

Imperial physician (Dahong Ni), foreground, Curse of the Golden Flower ©

who is also using his nubile daughter Chan (Li Man) to mix the Empress’ daily “medicine,”

Imperial Physician’s daughter Chan (Li Man), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

the Emperor is poisoning his Empress with a substance that will eventually drive her insane.

Is it because the Empress is having an affair with Crown Prince Wan (Ye Liu), the emperor’s son from a previous marriage?

Crown Prince Wan (Ye Liu) and Empress stepmother (Gong Li), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

Is it because the Empress wants her own first-born son (the Emperor’s second son), Prince Jai (Jay Chou) to be the heir?

Prince Jai (Jay Chou), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

Or is it because the Empress is fomenting a palace coup, embroidering tens of thousands of yellow chrysanthemums for the rebel army to wear?

The reason for the poisoning isn’t clear, as the royal couple’s discord is not clear, though that discord seems to be long-standing.

As if this conflict between the Emperor and his Empress weren’t enough, Crown Prince Wan wants to be “disinherited” by his father and wants to stop sleeping with his stepmother, if only because he is also having an affair with Imperial doctor’s daughter Chan and fears that his own royal social class will prevent their happily-ever-after union.

Imperial Physician’s daughter Chan (Li Man) and Crown Prince Wan (Ye Liu), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

Now enter Imperial Doctor’s branded-in-the-face wife (Jin Chen), who is helping the Empress discover the “new ingredient” in her daily “medicine,” and who has her own secrets regarding the royal household.

Imperial Physician’s wife (Jin Chen), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

And just in case that’s not enough drama, let’s throw in a seemingly cheerful third son (Junjie Qin) who is becoming increasingly unhappy that no one in the family — Emperor/father or Empress/mother or warrior-big brother — seems to think him capable of doing anything of importance.

Youngest royal son (Junjie Qin), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

Verily, it’s a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.

Some critics found the acting weak, claiming that the actors “alternated between venomous stares and wild, emotional outbursts,” or, worse, that the actors “[strained] their facial muscles with silent-movie enthusiasm and [did] everything but [shoot] flames from their eye sockets.” A few critics likened the film to melodrama and operatic delirium.

In fact, the only weakness in Curse of the Golden Flower is the film’s too numerous martial arts sequences. From the Imperial doctor’s humble wife and handmaiden daughter to the Emperor’s sons, from the vast competing armies to the Imperial assassins, everyone in this kingdom seems adept in the martial arts.

Everyone except the Empress, that is, and she’s the one who could have benefitted most.

At the time of its release, with a budget of $45 million USD, Curse of the Golden Flower was the most expensive Chinese film ever made. Its expansive budget is displayed in the film’s dazzling images: strikingly colored sets that are almost blinding, elaborately embroidered and beaded costumes, magnificent wall-hangings and carpets, glittering gold ornaments and jewels, sumptuous wigs, and extravagantly uniformed armies. The film’s production design brilliantly conveys the oppressiveness of opulence while its gorgeous cinematography becomes a metaphor for the splendor and beauty that can only temporarily disguise the underlying ugliness and moral decay of any autocratic regime, but especially one that is corrupted by incest, adultery, poisoning, rebellion, and murder.

In Mandarin with English subtitles, Curse of the Golden Flower is available for rent from Amazon ($3.99), Vudu ($2.99 SD or $3.99 HD), or for purchase from iTunes ($12.99).

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