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Hungry for revenge: Li in Curse of the Golden Flower.

Bloody Intrigue

By Ann Morrow

Curse of the Golden Flower

Directed by Zhang Yimou

In Zhang Yimou’s new period drama, Curse of the Golden Flower, almost everyone ends up either as devious as a Medici or as insane as Ivan the Terrible, yet even its outsized emotions are bowed by the film’s meticulous visual extravagance. Set in the Forbidden City during the Tang dynasty, it centers on the imperial family, whose tragic disintegration was set in motion a generation previous. Like all of Yimou’s films (Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad), there’s a political agenda lurking beneath the lush art direction and exquisite acting.

The first murderous rift occurs between the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) and his consort (Gong Li), who suffers from bouts of a strange fever. She is attended by the crown prince, Wan (Liu Ye), who is not her son—Wan’s birth mother died while the Emperor was busy usurping the throne. The Empress loves Wan not as a mother, but as a lover. When the daughter of the palace physician replaces her in his affections, the Empress schemes to position her own son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), as heir to the empire. Eventually, tens of thousands will die as a result of jealous whims within the family. Yimou’s masterly contrast of decadent palace intrigues with the era’s cultural opulence and philosophical refinement prevents the hothouse plot (even the brilliantly colored corridors of the imperial chambers seem to glow with a sickly phosphorescence) from bubbling into soap opera.

The ritualized civilities of legions of royal servants are just a warm-up for the battle sequences, which start out with secret raids by trapeze-like ninjas and escalate into monumental clashes between seemingly millions of soldiers. Though Curse of the Golden Flower (named for the yellow chrysanthemums that carpet the city for a festival) lightly employs some of the magical wire work and acrobatic choreography familiar from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it also holds its own with The Two Towers for massive yet intimate battle sequences and dramatic settings. And just when it seemed that there was nothing new to be done with sword-era fighting, Yimou creates a new marital-arts genre with the ninjas’ rope-thrown scythes, which are astoundingly countered by the army’s pikes.

The gorgeous production and costuming—there’s an element of pride in the filmmaker’s reproduction of the dynasty’s vast magnificence—is matched by the casting: Only stars of the magnitude of Li (beautifully tragic) and Yun-Fat (charismatically autocratic) could avoid being upstaged by the clothes on their backs (the winglike sleeves alone could swamp lesser luminaries). Though the wretched excesses of the imperial family lack the emotional involvement of smaller-scaled intrigues such as Crouching Tiger, the malevolence of absolute power seeps through even the most lyrical of the film’s images.

Pale and Precious

The Painted Veil

Directed by John Curran

The latest film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Painted Veil, hits viewers with the full brunt of the beauty that is inland China, which is good, since the scenery is the only thing approaching the dramatic in what is essentially a polite undertaking. An earlier version, done in 1934, didn’t have color, and didn’t feel the need to draw on the plot’s location. It had Garbo.

I’m not being facetious. Not only was Greta Garbo, as a mere presence, astounding and captivating, but her performance, which I was privileged to see many years ago on television, conveyed the kind of gravity and desperation that drove and ultimately developed her character Kitty, from a spoiled narcissist to a woman transformed by grief and love. Now, with director John Curran’s and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner’s version, we have a Kitty, played by Naomi Watts, who isn’t so much morally repelled as she is slightly bored by a singular lack of purpose in life. She appears to us first as a, well, bored party girl who ends up marrying besotted bacteriologist (!) Walter Fane (Edward Norton) as a sort of counterattack to her mother’s incessant bickering. Once the newlyweds are settled in China, where Walter does research, he does everything he can to woo his bride, but she prefers the lust and virility of dashing bureaucrat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber).

When the cuckolded Walter confronts her and presents her with the option of going with him into the midst of a cholera epidemic in a remote Chinese village, or presenting her with divorce papers, she retorts that Charlie loves her, and that they both want to put an end to this charade. One can’t help but feel pity for her poor addled brain, as it is clear that she’s fallen for the usual lines offered by a married lover. Unfortunately, despite the fact that this is the one scene in the entire movie that crackles with something approaching fire, Watts, Nyswaner and Curran fail to use it to elevate Kitty beyond a mere peevishly selfish, spoiled child.

As the story takes us into the Chinese interior, secondary plotlines like potential civil unrest and, of course, the cholera epidemic itself, gently nudge into view, but Curran seems too interested in long scenes of silent dinners between the warring couple to inject the movie with something approaching suspense. After all, these people’s lives are at stake, with either of them having an excellent chance of being killed by disease or one or another member of disgruntled political factions. Strangely, such factors don’t seem to matter much—indeed, a scene in which the nuns and orphans of a convent barricade themselves for fear of imminent attack comes off as strangely devoid of terror.

Whereas Garbo enhanced the earlier film, but had good support from the likes of Herbert Marshall and George Brent, this version is helped by Norton’s strong performance, particularly in the aforementioned scene in which he confronts the cheating Kitty. But both he and Watts suffer, as the movie progresses, from the script’s lack of focus on the drive that would impel a wronged man to inflict such dangerous odds upon both himself and his wife, or what forces might compel that woman to stay, even when shown an out. The addition of Diana Rigg as a mother superior spouting advice about the coupling of passion and duty, followed by a coda in which bereavement comes off as the height of style, do nothing to wriggle The Painted Veil out of its cozy corner of fastidious plotting and retro fashion.

—Laura Leon

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