Ever since Zhang Yimou's florid visual compositions and technicolor-vibrant hues first moved from the realm of social realist allegory to post-operatic martial artistry, he's been climbing ever more precipitous heights of action-movie gusto. Where to go after the endlessly looping, "Rashomon"-inflected battles and fascism-touched grandiosity of "Hero"? Naturally, the even more sweeping, character-driven love triangle of "House of Flying Daggers," which kept one-upping itself in twist after double-cross after blindside, but really just wanted to survey perfectly streaked trails of blood as they glided slo-mo in midair and long tendrils of black hair whipping in ungodly breezes. For his third heaping of sword-clanging bombast, after "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles"' minor but sweet detour into father-son, Chinese-Japanese relations, Zhang attempts to go even bigger, piling up an onslaught of domestic intrigue, corrupt allegiances, and incestuous coupling in the royal palace of Tang-dynasty China, 928 A.D. And while "Curse of the Golden Flower" is compellingly huge, and thrilling in its plot dry-heaves, the ever more grandiose machinations bring increasingly diminishing returns. Zhang wants the gargantuan, while his script and characters demand intimacy.
Nevertheless, as addicting, even intimidating, as the visual sweep of "Golden Flower" may be, nothing can pin viewers to their seats quite like Gong Li. As the haughty, scheming, Empress, trapped by her dominating husband, Gong commands every inch of the screen whenever she's on it, even when being encroached by all shades of glittering, rainbowed bedazzlement. Her fingers capped by endless gold claws, her penetrating glance burdened by all sorts of heavy haloes, her embroidered capes bearing down on her shoulders like prison chains, this Empress makes a show of her victimization, practically flaunting her incestuous relationship with son Prince Jie (Taiwanese teenybopper Jay Chou, reduced mostly to incredulous stares). When it becomes plain to her that her husband, Chow Yun Fat's Emperor - introduced in a nearly abstracted, sword-clanging, chainmail-rattling battle with his own son, Prince Cheng (Qin Junjie) - is poisoning her methodically, she begins to devise her own grand-scale revenge. All this deliberately builds to a massive climax amidst the royal parade and celebration of the annual Chong Yang festival, a blazingly yellow affair festooned with fields full of flowers.
If only Zhang's film stayed closest to Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat's blazingly melodramatic marital spats. Instead, in an apparent bid to outdo himself, the filmmaker, who never met a sweeping crane shot he didn't exploit for maximum pizzazz, edges alarmingly close to Peter Jackson territory. Soon enough, his mise-en-scene is swarming with CGI human-type critters of uniform size and shape, swelling and roiling like herds of Orcs. With spatial concerns and narrative composure necessarily out the window, all that's left to do is settle in for another cartoon. A shame, since Gong Li's Empress is a creation that surpasses the expressive capabilities of any special effect.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]