Somebody’s got to remind me not to go to the Kabuki for movies. For some reason I’ve got it stuck in my head that it’s perfect for dinner and a movie afterwards, and I always forget how they stuff you into cramped seats in a tiny 100-seat theater with a screen not much bigger than my TV. They run a disclaimer now before the movie, promising a big renovation with stadium seats and everything else to update it to the late 1990’s, so maybe that’ll change. But I’m boycotting it until I hear otherwise.
Tonight’s pick was Curse of the Golden Flower. This is a very, very silly movie. Absurd, even. For a lower-budget, action-heavy movie, that would be charming. But with as much pomposity as is in this movie, it just comes across as bloated, tedious excess.
Now, I’ve seen two of Zhang Yimou’s other movies: Hero, which was beautiful, full of intermittent action sequences, and completely nonsensical; and House of Flying Daggers, which was beautiful and exciting for the first 20 minutes and then turned into relentless tedium. So I’ve seen two and didn’t like either, but went ahead for the third; you’d be right in asking, who’s the idiot now?
Well, although both were ultimately bad movies, they did succeed on the visuals, so I expected more of the same. And when you’re going for spectacle, you want to see it on a big screen. The problem with Curse of the Golden Flower is that the spectacle just never lets up, so it all cancels each other out and leaves nothing memorable but a bright, blurry excess.
Every single scene is another designed and built to impress. Most of it is shot after shot of elaborately-dressed people walking down the hallways of the Forbidden Castle, past rainbow-colored doorways and pillars that look more like Willy Wonka’s factory than feudal China. Occasionally it cuts to a scene with hundreds or thousands of people working in the background while two people reiterate a plot point that’s already been established a dozen times over. For the more tranquil moments, it cuts to a Chinese stronghold in a dramatic mountain crevasse being besieged by dozens of ninja assassins. Every shot either has a million people in frame, or one person and a million set decorations.
Of course, this all works with the theme of the movie, such as it is. The story is about the Emperor’s dysfunctional family, and to convey the idea that they’re trapped by all the excess and ritual and tradition and political intrigue, you’ve got to show them bearing the weight of obscenely excessive wealth. But like everything else, that theme is explicitly repeated several times; the movie even has the two leads write it out on paper with English subtitles. Looking for deeper meaning in something so gratuitously silly and excessive is pointless, so the whole thing comes across like set designer porn.
Reviewers who are up to speed on Chinese cinema are always lamenting that everything released now gets compared to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but you just have to bring it up. There’s no denying that that movie changed how Chinese movies are perceived in the US. The problem, as I see it, is that that was a genuinely artistic movie — it took a form of popular art and used it to tell a truly adult story, subtly hiding its theme of freedom vs. being locked into expectations and roles behind over-the-top special effects and action scenes. It was high-art substance told with a low-art style.
As a result, movies like House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower are being distributed by Sony Pictures Classics as if they were art movies, when they’re really just pure style over substance. A lesser movie reviewer would make some comment here about how the Emperor has no clothes, but I’m above that. So I’ll just repeat my main point: this movie is hella lame.