Saturday, January 20, 2007

Zhang Yimou's Gorgeous, Bloody Curse

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the last two films by the acclaimed director Zhang Yimou to make much of a splash in the United States, Hero and House of Flying Daggers--and how I thought they didn't come near to the quality of his earlier films. Since that time, Zhang has made Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, a film I haven't seen yet and which has attracted a fair amount of critical attention, partly because it is his first film to involve extensive work in something other than the Chinese language. But the attention--both popular and critical--paid to Zhang's latest film, Curse of the Golden Flower, has been far greater, primarily because it reunites the director with Gong Li, his former lover and muse who starred in and--many would say--guided the incredible series of films he made from 1987's Red Sorghum to 1995's Shanghai Triad. Every fan of Zhang's movies had to wonder: what would be the result of these two working together again after ten years' separation? Did their reunion mean that Zhang had overcome his Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-inspired obsession with making wuxia pictures (which, as I argued before, his formalistic storytelling style seemed a poor match with), and was ready to return to the vivid and explosively intense domestic dramas of his past? His casting of Crouching Tiger's Chow Yun-Fat opposite Gong Li gave some reason to worry.

They shouldn't have. My recommendation? Go see Curse right now, while you can still see it on the big screen. It's probably not the best movie you'll see this year, but it is a gorgeous, bloody drama, and the best marriage I have seen yet of the ethereal, evocative language of wuxia cinema with Zhang's emotional and humanistic priorities. The film doesn't work perfectly, but what does work is spectacular. Zhang Yimou is back, and with Curse, he has a fabulous story to tell.

Zhang's primary source material for his film is a melodrama by the Chinese playwright Cao Yu called Thunderstorm, and if you go by the majority of the movie's reviews--which have been fairly mixed--Zhang's movie really doesn't escape the play's fundamental overripeness. Transporting this 1930s-era domestic drama back to the Tang Dynasty, Zhang gives us the story of the family of an emperor reuniting on the eve of the Chrysanthemum Festival; the main players include a banished middle son returning from three years on the frontier, a weak and deeply filial crown prince paralyzed with doubt, guilt, conflicted desires, a youngest son who alternately pops into conversations with immature naivety or skulks and watches knowingly about the palace, an empress slowly being poisoned to death and striking back at her oppressor through both deep plots and supposedly hidden affairs, and an emperor who through it all manipulates his family and those closest to them and him. By the time the movie ends, three of these main players are dead, along with three more secondary players, to say nothing of thousands of soldiers. Along the way, there is fratricide, filicide, incest of multiple sorts, numerous betrayals, hysteria and humiliation, and buckets of blood. The sets and costumes are astonishingly beautiful; the scenes through which Zhang composes and develops this Grand Guignol tale have a formal structure, symmetry and fluidity that is breathtaking. And as far as most reviewers are concerned, that sums up the entirety of Curse: a lurid soap opera in tremendous imperial finery. It's not surprising then, that while acknowledging the Shakespearean themes Zhang weaves into the story, most of the critics have made comparisons to Douglas Sirk or Jacqueline Susann rather than Zhang's earlier movies. But this is wrong.

Watch the film closely; look at what Zhang fills the corners of the screen with, and what he does between the scenes. Consider his recreation of the incredible opulence and wealth that surrounded the emperor, with thousands of servants almost creating--and thus also defining--the world through which he and his family moves with their every step. You might be tempted to laugh at the ridiculous incongruity of servants placing flowers and sweeping away bodies at the same moment, at timekeepers marching about the hallways while adulterers and assassins scamper from room to room. I was also...until, come the end of film, I came to comprehend--primarily through the remarkable way Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat, in different ways, express both awesome control and volcanic rage over the course of the movie--how all that world-tending served to ground the story's emotional heights in an ordinariness, an everydayness, one which was nonetheless utterly corrupted by the absolute power which the emperor wielded. The plots against him had no chance of success (the final battle with the rebellious army, which the emperor's soldiers almost literally crush like bugs between huge, unstoppable, advancing walls in front of the palace steps, brings this point to gruesome cinematic life); he would evoke the "natural law" of things to debase anyone who would challenge him; he took condescending control of the positions and health and future of everyone who served him; and he did it all with equanimity and poise, moving in seeming (and infuriating) synchronicity with forces and rituals and masses of servants that overwhelm all the "dependent variables" struggling for power and freedom and revenge within the palace. (This is where the spirit of wuxia, where styles of fighting and ritual movement become a component of the story, haunts the film.) Zhang's movie, then, for all the swordplay and screaming and silk, delivers an unsettling story about power, about how the world itself, and all the harmless and ordinary and simple things in it--like a courtyard filled with yellow chrysanthemums--can themselves also be signs of, or even tools of, oppression. The golden flower is cursed in more ways than one.

I'll allow that Zhang and his performers don't always bring these themes of frustration and revulsion as responses to power as fully to life as they might have. Gong Li, who is I think quite possibly the single most beautiful film actress ever--she has been able to express her sensuality on screen to degree that I can only compare with someone like Lauren Bacall--is in several scenes (particularly those involving the oldest son, played by Liu Ye) that I think demanded more eroticism than the movie gives us; as it is, we have to read a great deal of contempt and perverted longing into what are, in actuality, some pretty chaste encounters. Nonetheless, she's able to communicate enough fury and desperation throughout the film (watch the way she fights with her own failing body and her own despair every time she fixes up her hair) for her final cry of futility to carry real weight. As for Chow Yun-Fat, perhaps the beard he wears in this role was a mistake; he has an enormously expressive face, and thanks to losing sight of part of it the viewers sometimes also lost, I think, sight of how the emperor is thinking and weighing his words in his every encounter. Only by appreciating that do the two times in the film where the emperor really does feel out of control, driven by emotion rather than the inevitability of his own position, really achieve the affect I think Zhang wanted them to have. (You'll know the two moments when you see them: once is near the end of the film, when the emperor's attempt to shock his wife with the carnage her plots have caused elicits only a brief response from her, thus shocking him with how lost in hopelessness and hate she truly is; the other, the one which the fanboys who just want Chow Yun-Fat to cut loose will like the best, immediately precedes the climactic battle, and tells us something important about the emperor: that he really did love his first son, partly because he was the progeny of an earlier life of his, partly because he--out of all the sons--apparently both genuinely and humbly craved parental approval, triggering the emperor's condescension...and, when the object of that condescension is taken from him, his rage.) Still, overall I'd call it an excellent performance. The same good said for all the main and secondary players, especially Jay Chow, who plays the second son: several missed opportunities, some scenes where themes and tensions are more spoken than felt, but nothing that undermines the whole.

And as for the violence? Some of Zhang Yimou's most thoughtful critics seem convinced that there can be no bridging of his earlier sensibilities with his new taste for glittering armies and choreographed ninjas. But I would say Curse gives one cause to disagree. Rather than Douglas Sirk and Jacqueline Susann, I've only run across one review that settles on, I think, the right comparison: Akira Kurosawa's Ran. That film, an adaptation of King Lear, is far more explicitly Shakespearean than Curse, yet it too finds a way to tell a story of domestic corruption and power without limits (though in Curse, unlike in Ran and Lear, the results of such never rebound upon the central character) through lurid sexuality and blood-soaked scenes. One can even productively compare the brilliant image of the clashing infantry armies of Curse with those gloriously colorful cavalry charges in Ran, which is truly one of the great long takes in the history of cinema. No, Curse isn't a masterpiece like Ran. But it proves, I think, that Zhang has by no means lost his ability to make a masterpiece, whatever his changes in focus and style. And that is, for all his old fans as well as his new ones, very good news indeed.


Anonymous said...

Ill grab a copy of this soon. I love watching only the best movies

Anonymous said...

I'll go for it..I want only the best movies.