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Culture: The Curse of the Golden Flower: A Study in Tyranny
Saturday, 14 April 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
(Click for larger image)
The Curse of the Golden Flower is the newest film to have come out by the acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yi-Mou. It is an account of a family drama at the middle of the court of one of the last of the T'ang emperors in the 10th Century AD. The film is not historically accurate but is an adaptation of a 1930s play about a business man's family collapsing through female intrigue into chaos- the adaptation moves the scenario from the cityscapes of thirties China to the palaces of the T'ang dynasty.

The film is liberal with anachronisms- for a start it is set in the Forbidden City which was built several centuries after the date that the events of the film supposedly happen in. Whilst it is spectacular in a visual sense- the film has been criticised for lacking a convincing storyline and some Chinese critics and directors have argued that the intentions of the film are immoral. Despite that there can be no argument about the artistry of the film's visual display- its use of colour, of its massive cast and in particular of costume are all to be commended. But that still leaves us wondering whether the film is anything more than an extravagent and expensive waste of space?

Well is it? The film is a spectacular work of visual pyrotechnics. It is probably one of the most visually exciting films that I have ever seen. The mechanics of despotism, however inaccurate to the period, are wonderfully conveyed, particularly in the opening sequence of the film as hundreds of young women proceed in exact sequence to get dressed in front of our eyes. Throughout the film at regular intervals we are reminded that life in the Forbidden Palace of Yi-Mou's imagination is one of ritual and structure, governed by the chanting of the hour and the presentation of food and drink (and medicine) to the royal family. The brilliance of this order is rendered in part to demonstrate how ceremonial life is within the court but it is also there for another reason. It is there to be balanced against the disorder of the imperial family and their lives.

For this is a film ultimately about tyranny and about whim. The whole plot is based upon a series of whims- the empress is sleeping with her step-son, the emperor has decided to poison his wife, revelations come from all directions about this most unhappy family and in the middle of it there is an a title- emperor and the question of the succession to that title. In the middle furthermore there is the emperor- a wily navigator of the course of palace intrigue, whose power is based on his cruelty which lashes out from underneath the convention, catching whomsoever it will and killing them quickly and easily.

This is a world in short in which behind the ceremonial are all the frustrated sexual passions and lusts for power that lurk in a normal human life- my immediate thought was not of Hamlet (to which the film has often been compared) but of Laclos's Liasons Dangereuses- we have the same facade of respectability which masks a savagery of life red in tooth and claw. In Yi-Mou's drama everyone though is fatally exposed- whereas the worst that can happen in Laclos is that the innocent are seduced, in Yi-Mou's drama death awaits all the characters at the end- in addition the death of the dynasty awaits for the emperor by the end has lost all of his sons- the succession is left wide open and vacant.

The only survivor of this drama is of course the tyrant himself- the emperor. Played wonderfully by Yun Fat Chow as the film progresses the emperor loses all his character. At the beggining we are left with the impression that he is at least an indulgent father dispensing eastern wisdom- but by the end we are left in no doubt that this is a blatantly ammoral man, for whose bon mots are as empty as his heart and who contrives to murder his entire family in order to survive. Who is willing to kill confidante after confidante, who has all the intrigue of Tiberius, the cruelty of Domitian and the personal heroism of Caesar. Shut in his palace, aided by armed mysterious ninja soldiers and by his own fortitude, this is an emperor happy to bash the brains of his own son out with a gold encrusted belt.

Yi-Mou's film thus indicts the tyrant. His earlier film, Hero, was devoted to the Hobbesian theme that absolute power is neccessary to end perpetual war. Whereas that film discusses the outer benefits of tyranny to the state and the people, this film discusses the inward damage that the concept of tyranny does. There are precious few genuine loving relationships in this film that are not corrupted or twisted (even without the protagonists' knowledge) by the biography of the emperor and his search for power or by the fact of courtly competition. Inside the ordered world of the Forbidden City, which in my view symbolises the order Yi-Mou argued in Hero would be found through tyranny, at the centre of the state there is orderlessness, there is anarchy.

In this sense, the Curse of the Golden Flower represents the a mirror to Hero as a study in tyranny. Whereas that film had stressed the peace that tyranny provides, this stresses the turmoil nearest to the tyrant. There is something Tacitean about Yi-Mou's insistance that peace at the periphery means chaos in the centre- one can almost hear the echo of Tacitus in the quiet of the Roman empire and the chaos of the Tiberian court in this drama. This is a flawed film and many will agree with me when I say that I think Yi-Mou can do better than this- but it is an ambitious part of what Yi-Mou is doing in his recent films- to take us inside tyranny and examine its effects on the nation and the tyrant himself.