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Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou, 2006)

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  • noelbotevera
    Curse of the golden filmmaker Noel Vera I m not sure if we can call Zhang Yimou a great filmmaker, but in the 80s and 90s he was certainly a force to be
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 16, 2007
      Curse of the golden filmmaker

      Noel Vera

      I'm not sure if we can call Zhang Yimou a great filmmaker, but in
      the '80s and '90s he was certainly a force to be reckoned with. For
      director Chen Kaige he shot "Huang tu di" (Yellow Earth, 1984), a
      film that announced to the world the presence of the "Fifth
      Generation" of mainland Chinese filmmakers; three years later,
      with "Hong gao liang" (Red Sorghum), "Ju Dou" (1990), and "Da hong
      deng long gao gao gua" (Raise the Red Lantern, 1991) Zhang helped
      establish the house style of the Fifth Generation--at once old-
      fashioned in its embrace of melodrama ("Ju Dou" owes a plot twist or
      two to "The Postman Always Rings Twice") yet new in its utter lack
      of cynicism (the unabashedly romantic flavor of "Hong gao liang's"
      love scene); voluptuous in its use of colors, shapes, textures (the
      dyed cloth in "Ju Dou" filling the screen with ribbons of fluttering
      scarlet, purple, gold) yet somehow austere in intent and ultimate
      impact (repeated shots of the compound's imposing rectangular floor
      plan in "Da hong deng" emphasizing the heroine's imprisonment). The
      1999 "Yi ge dou bu neng shao" (Not One Less) subordinated that
      gorgeous visual style to the story of a young teacher struggling to
      keep her class of poor student peasants together. The result, I
      thought, was a film more persuasively moving (thanks to its
      countryside grit and simplicity) than any of his earlier efforts.

      He's struggled ever since, sometimes in interesting ways: "Wo de fu
      qin mu qin " (The Road Home, 1999) is a romance told in flashbacks,
      as the lovers' son arrives from the big city to bury his just-died
      father (I liked it well enough, save that the mother seemed a tad
      too self-indulgent); "Xingfu shiguang" (Happy Times, 2001) felt like
      a reworking of Charlie Chaplin's "City Life" (blind girl given the
      illusion of a better life by an equally poor benefactor) and suffers
      in comparison (you also couldn't help but feel sexually predatory
      overtones--all these middle-aged men, surrounding a helpless blind
      girl--in what Zhang strenuously tries to present as an innocuous
      situation).

      "Ying xiong" (Hero, 2002) represents a third stage in Zhang's
      career, the Chinese martial-arts extravaganza set in the country's
      distant past, where Zhang's often provocative political subtext can
      be tucked safely away inside an entertaining metaphor. Chris Doyle
      was the cinematographer and I'm only guessing here, but he
      apparently took inspiration from an idea Vittorio Storaro tried to
      work into Warren Beatty's comic-book epic "Dick Tracy" (1990) but
      failed; Doyle's primary colors aren't there just to make some visual
      statement, but suggest the emotional tone and philosophical nature
      of the various points of view making up the film's "Rashomon"-like
      story. Zhang's follow-up film "Shi mian mai fu" (House of Flying
      Daggers, 2004) was less impressive, partly because Doyle had been
      replaced by Zhao Xiaoding (who also does the cinematography of this,
      his latest), partly because melodrama swamps the already overripe
      film.

      "Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia" (Curse of the Golden Flower, 2006)
      takes this trend of melodrama and extravagant production design and
      pushes it to the nth power. With Zhao's help, Zhang fashions a--
      well, it's hard to say just what: think "Blade Runner" set in the
      Tang Dynasty, or the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffering its
      meltdown inside a Chinese restaurant. The décor doesn't just have a
      poisonously radioactive glow; there's also a delirious tackiness
      that dares you to respond with something sarcastic (my favorite
      speculates that set designer Huo Tingxiao must have been "channeling
      Liberace"). The costumes reflect the outrageousness of the sets--
      gold silk by the dozen square miles, push-up bras by the thousands,
      more scimitar-length intricately carved and painted nail extensions
      than might be found in Wolverine's manicure kit. Sets and costumes
      are a mishmash of styles--the Forbidden City, a prominent setting
      for much of the action, wasn't built until the Ming Dynasty, some
      five hundred years later; some of the palace's defenses--a huge
      tanklike wall made up of spears and shields--seem cribbed off of, I
      don't know, either D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance," Anthony
      Mann's "The Fall of the Roman Empire," even Terry Gilliam's "Brazil."

      Arguably odder than the production design is the chosen source for
      the film's screenplay--"Thunderstorm" (1933), the single most famous
      drama by legendary playwright Cao Yu (real name Wan Jiabao), done
      when he was only twenty-three years old. Zhang had gotten in trouble
      several times before, particularly for "Ju Dou" and " Da hong deng,"
      which were seen as allegories on the authoritarian nature of the
      Chinese government; in his recent work it's possible to see a
      reluctance to engage in direct criticism. "Shi mian mai fu," for
      example, may feature a secret band of knife-throwing rebels, but the
      focus is more on their derring-do and love lives than on any
      particularly despotic government activity. "Ying xiong" on the
      surface reads as wholehearted endorsement of the government's
      history of repression (the end--national unity--justifies the
      means). "Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia," in channeling Cao Yu (who
      had openly condemned the communists), is more overt: the corrupt
      emperor (Chow Yun-fat) is secretly punishing his wife (Gong Li) for
      sleeping with her stepson (Liu Ye)--perversely, by feeding her
      poisoned medicine that he insists is crucial for her health; his
      wife in turn plots revenge via a deadly coup attempt. An outré
      detail, the sort of vicious slander Jonathan Swift liked to heap
      upon particularly despised enemies: the emperor suffers from what
      appears to be a spectacular case of hemorrhoids--his treatment
      involves huddling in gargantuan throne that doubles as an
      elaborately herbed and medicated steam bath.

      It's difficult to know how to take the film--are we asked to swoon
      to the passions on display, or laugh at the camp presentation? The
      sets, costumes, plot twists, even acting style go so thoroughly over-
      the-top that when one particularly grotesque revelation is made
      between two lovers you're not so much shocked as shockingly amused
      by their reactions-- eyes wide, jaws dropped, libido unmistakably
      doused.

      But Chow's emperor--I've heard him called miscast, but I'd rather
      say he's a villain in the classic Hitchcock mode, gracious and
      gallant and courteous to a fault. His ruthless response to his
      beloved's fledgling coup attempt inspires Zhang to evoke images from
      the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre; more, Zhang follows this up with
      a brilliant bit of satire involving thousands of chrysanthemums
      moving in clockwork precision, the sequence ending with a truly
      shocking image: all the surviving combatants sitting down to a
      celebratory family dinner. For a few breathtaking moments Zhang's
      effrontery cuts through all the brocaded silk, heaving bosoms,
      overilluminated screens; for a few moments the film is truly worth
      seeing.

      "Ying xiong" was a huge hit; "Shi mian mai fu" did respectable
      business; this picture--despite the large budget, terrible notices,
      and unspectacular boxoffice--will probably make its money back. From
      controversial arthouse filmmaker Zhang has evolved into a
      recognizable international figure with a celebrity status similar if
      not equal to John Woo or Ang Lee--only Zhang seems committed to
      making Chinese films, using mostly Chinese talent and production
      facilities financed largely by Chinese money, and he seems to want
      to say something beneath all that hoopla. I'm not exactly happy with
      what Zhang's become (I thought his "Yi ge dou bu neng shao" was his
      finest work to date), but considering his competition--I hear James
      Cameron of "Titanic" fame is planning yet another 200 million dollar
      bonfire of the vanities--frankly, I'd rather root for the Fifth
      Generation veteran making hash of his culture, slipping subversive
      subtexts past government censors, overall showing Hollywood that
      there's an alternative to their flavorless factory product.

      (First published in Businessworld, 2/9/07)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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