It's late in the 10th-century -- the Tang Dynasty -- and as the movie opens, the Emperor (Chow-Yun Fat) and middle son Jai (Jay Chou) are returning from war to their opulent palace. The Empress (Gong Li) is slowly wasting away from what her husband insists is anemia; she's just broken off an affair with Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye) -- the son of the Emperor's first wife -- who is himself in love with Chan (Li Man), daughter of the imperial doctor, whose medicine isn't doing a thing for the Empress's health. There's a third son, Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), who seems to be on hand mainly for comic relief; he spends his time being as obsequious as possible to both parents and sulking about being ignored.
Clearly, this is not a healthy, functional, Oprah-approved family; these people make the Hamlets look well-adjusted. And the Hamlets aren't a bad point of comparison, because what Zhang is going for here is a sort of cross between martial arts epic and Shakespearean tragedy.
If you loved Zhang's Hero or House of Flying Daggers, you may be disappointed by the level of action here. There's not as much of it, and most of it involves large armies of CGI; I found myself longing for some nice straightforward hand-to-hand combat.
The story is wildly melodramatic; before it's over, we've seen husband and wife plotting to murder one another, father and son plotting to murder one another, two different incestuous romances, poison, faked death, and an army of black-clad ninjas (yes, I know this is China and not Japan, but that really is the word that leaps to mind).
The movie is visually spectacular. The palace rooms are great chaotic riots of color -- it's as if a five-year-old got loose with a box of oil paints -- and the costumes are elaborately gorgeous. (I don't remember ever seeing this much cleavage in a Chinese film; Gong Li's gowns are marvels of engineering, allowing her breasts to enter a room three minutes before the rest of her.) The hairdos alone probably cost more than any movie that will play at Sundance next month.
As for the acting? Well, any attempt at subtlety would just get lost in all the opulence; emotions are big here, and we occasionally cross the line from melodrama to camp. Prince Yu's big scene at the end of the movie, for instance, dives gleefully over the line; you can practically hear the actor thinking, "this is my big moment, dammit, and I'm gonna have fun!"
And despite the lack of really thrilling martial arts, there is great fun to be had here. Gong Li is magnificent to watch, driven by vicious rage but never quite losing control to it as she plays a movie-length death scene; Jay Chou, as the good son who really deserves to be the next Emperor, is the very picture of moral rectitude and decency (and he's awfully good-looking, too).
Curse of the Golden Flower isn't a great movie, by any means; the CGI armies aren't always convincing, and the double-crosses and backstabbing can be hard to keep track of. But it's a crazy thrill ride, as purely entertaining as anything I've seen this year.