Curse of the Golden Flower ends with rivers of blood—blood from the wounds of the few characters who have survived and the life’s blood of the many more who have died, not to mention all the blood and brains and bile from the countless extras whose mutilated corpses litter the scene. The movie ends, in other words, like one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. That kind of grisly, epic grandeur is clearly Zhang’s goal, and he succeeds insofar as the comparison to Shakespeare is inevitable, if not particularly flattering: At best, Curse is a Titus Andronicus. It doesn’t even approach Hamlet.
Judging Zhang’s film against Shakespeare’s magnum opus isn’t exactly fair, but the director invites the comparison with this kind of twisted royal saga. The Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) has three sons and a lousy relationship with each. Wan, the eldest, is having an affair with his stepmother, the Empress (Gong Li); Jai, the second son, has been banished from the palace for years for challenging his father’s authority; and Yu, the youngest, spends his time skulking in hallways to eavesdrop on the others. Meanwhile, the Emperor’s relationship with his wife has degenerated to the point that he has taken to poisoning her medicine and she has resorted to plotting a coup.
Zhang plunges us into the claustrophobic palace intrigues at the beginning of the end. The royal family’s dysfunction reached a fatal magnitude years ago; Curse just lets the long-festering resentments and destructive secrets explode and rack up the inevitable body count.
It’s sort of fun to watch the schemes and double-crosses play out, but the story is too lurid, macabre, and histrionic to be that affecting. The actors play their roles straight, but only the incomparable Gong manages to transcend melodrama. The difference between her and the younger actors, in particular, is most apparent during Zhang’s frequent tight close-ups, which often require the actors to gaze directly into the camera. The novices sometimes look mannered and silly (one soap operatic revelation late in the movie draws especially giggle-worthy reaction shots), but Gong is never less than magnetic, a masterpiece of unspoken emotion seething beneath rigidly prescribed behavior.
Zhang’s previous martial arts fantasies are keenly passionate, so the emptiness of Curse is disappointing. The only elements of real greatness that carry over are the cinematography and production design; like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower looks truly incredible. The palace is unbelievably opulent, the costumes are ravishing, and the big battle scene employs a cast-of-thousands aesthetic to great effect.
Following that battle, hundreds of palace servants rapidly clean the blood-drenched courtyard—a shocking, brutally effective metaphor for the ways in which political leaders can treat their soldiers like disposable game pieces. That one image hints at what have might been, the monumental power Curse might have held. But ultimately, Curse only looks epic. It lacks the necessary gravitas, and without gravitas, the bloody finale isn’t Shakespearean; it’s just gory.