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Arts & Culture

Curse of the Golden Flower

Earlier this year Zhang Yimou made the intimate drama

Traveling Alone for Thousands of Miles, about a Japanese man traveling to China to learn about his filmmaker son. Now Zhang now combines the genres of melodrama and martial arts action for his latest film

Curse of the Golden Flower (opening December 22 at Landmarks Hillcrest Cinemas and now playing wide in San Diego). The film is Chinas official entry for Best Foreign Film in the Academy Awards.

Filmmaker Zhang Yimou and actors Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat know something about the global market. Zhang recently expanded his art house success to American mall theaters with Hero . Gong has won praise for her work in Hollywood films such as Memoirs of a Geisha and Miami Vice . And Chow joins the incredibly successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, appearing in the third film later this year. Moving between countries and genres seems vital in cinema today.

Zhang Yimou has proven to be a survivor in this new global cinema. He may have learned some of those survival skills as a young man in Communist China. He survived the Cultural Revolution and being sent off to the harsh countryside to work. After graduating from the Beijing Film Academy, he survived battles with Chinese censors to find success in Europe and America. More recently, he survived a new generation of Chinese filmmakers, some of whom criticized him for pandering to Western tastes. But his two decades of work is a testament to his savvy ability to constantly reinvent himself.

Curse of the Golden Flower

It is very much conscious this decision to constantly recreate myself with each film or every few years, says Zhang through a translator, it basically comes down to every few years you want to do something thats going to challenge you, challenge your audience. You want to try new things and new genres. This is extremely exciting for a filmmaker because it is not only something new but its a way to get a handle on new film techniques that you could only exercise in a certain genre. For example, the action film has a whole set of cinematic techniques that you wouldnt get to explore if you were doing a melodrama and I think thats what keeps it exciting for me.

Zhang successfully tried his hand at the action genre with Hero (2004) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). The films allowed him to tap into his appreciation for the tradition of the martial arts chivalric hero in Chinese literature and film. So back when I had the opportunity to make Hero it was extremely exciting because it was kind of my childhood dream after having grown up reading all kinds of stories in this genre. Then when I moved on to House of Flying Daggers , I got a chance to reinvent some of these ideas and push it a little further. That was also very exciting. But with Curse of the Golden Flower I feel I have done something very newan amalgamation of the melodrama and the action film.

Zhange has transplanted Cao Yus popular modern drama Thunderstorm to feudal Chinas Tang Dynasty, which the director describes as an era of incredible splendor, extravagance and beauty. So you have all these vibrant colors yet the story is so dark. Its really an exploration of the dark side of human nature and how people suffer under feudalism.

Zhang turns the family melodrama of the play into a struggle for power within the royal palace. Curse of the Golden Flower reunites Zhang with actress Gong Li. Gong made eight films with Zhang beginning with Red Sorghum in 1986 in which she played a peasant. In Curse of the Golden Flower , she says she has the opportunity to move up the social ladder to play an empress.

I think, says Gong through her translator, this may reflect something about our own process of maturing as artists starting out almost metaphorically as peasants and by now we have gotten to the stage where we can be emperors or empresses.

Playing opposite Gong Li is one of Hong Kongs cinematic royalty, Chow Yun Fat. Chow is an appealing performer known for playing cops and romantic heroes in a number of John Woo films, and displaying a comedic flair that no one outside of Hong Kong has bothered to tap into. But for Curse of the Golden Flower he takes on his first unsympathetic role as an emperor slowly poisoning his wife as he fights off a rebellion from within his own family. Chow says he relished the opportunity to be bad on screen.

I appreciate that I have this opportunity to play this kind of mean guy, says Chow, Its very challenging. Sometimes my wife says I am very mean to her. As a husband, of course, I love my wife but sometimes she does something wrong, I get very mad at her. But Im not a king. So I will just keep it down inside. But with the movie, I have the opportunity to release it in front of the camera as an actor. It is a kind of relaxation and a lot of my real frustration ends up on camera.

Chow Yun-Fat stars in Curse of the Golden Flower

Chow also had some frustrations or at least discomfort with the elaborate costumes. Set during the opulent Tang Dynasty, Chow and Gong are often costumed in magnificent golden robes. And in Chows case, golden armor. At one point he taunts one of his sons into a duel thats both playful and serious. To prove his dominance and power, Chows emperor conducts the duel from a seated position. On screen this adds a clever twist to the action choreography, but Chow found it very difficult. To tell the truth, Chow says, Im not very happy about that scene not because of the fighting, not because of the lighting, not because of the camera. Its about the costume. Its a very heavy and stiff full metal jacket. I cannot walk, I cannot breathe. Its very difficult. It was not easy to carry seventy pounds of robes like that. But the outfit looked fantastic.

Not only the outfit looks fantastic but so too does Chow, an actor who displays amazing physical grace on screen. Zhang cast Chow not only for his talent and popularity but also because Chow knew about the original play on which the film is based. When he was a student in Hong Kong, Zhang says, Chow had performed Thunderstorm so he knew very well what kind of a character this was. And how nasty this father figure was in the original play. The father [whom Zhang transforms into the character of The Emperor for Curse of the Golden Flower ] is representative of feudal Chinese culture and the oppression the feudal system exerts on its people. But Chow wanted to take the chance and I wanted to take the chance on him. I thought it would be fun to see him really playing this malicious, conniving, scheming type of a character. But its interesting because in the end whether he is the villain, so to speak, or not, its really hard to say because there are no heroes here. And hes a victim too. And thats something at the end of the movie you realize, that even though hes the king, even the emperor, can be a victim of this feudal structure There are no winners at the end of the day.

Zhang Yimou describes the film as a critique of the feudal system in traditional China and the way its places importance on the face presented to the outside world. But Gong Li says, Audiences right now are quite smart. Theyll look at this film and say, Oh of course its a historical costume drama. And its set in the past and they are using all of these old weapons. But on the other hand theyll know that this is just the shell, just the outer appearance and that inside the story theres all sorts of things that have a very contemporary relevance about certain themes and the way people behave in certain situations and so on so I think audiences are very smart and theyll be able to get something quite relevant out of this film.

At one point, theres a bloody battle in the royal courtyard. After the fighting ends, servants quickly come out and wipe away the blood and set out new flowers, making it look like nothing horrific had ever happened. For me, the scene called to mind images of Tiananmen Square. But Zhang denies the connection.

I had no intention of having anything to do at all with Tiananmen when we were making this. Its really a critique of the feudal system in traditional China and the way that it functions. Its really all about face and maintaining that face to the outside world.

But in a way that describes the Chinese governments reaction to the violence that occurred at Tiananmen and the face it wanted to present to the outside world. But since Zhang still lives in China and wants to continue to make films there, he may want to downplay what could be interpreted as criticism of the Chinese government. But Gong Li, who now makes films outside of China, concedes that the scene may indeed prompt that connection for some filmgoers.

Gong also reveals that Chinas government review system limits the variety of roles for a performer and thats one reason shes looked to Hollywood for work. Another reason is money.

Gong Li stars in Curse of the Golden Flower

In America, Gong says, there are these really big budget films like Miami Vice . Michael Mann had all sorts of things at his disposal. It was almost like he was a mafia boss. What he wants to do, just gets done. And from a Chinese directors point of view I look at that and go Oh gosh, were very envious of him in that situation. He wants to use cameras and he has the money to rent four or five of them. He wants to work with me for eight months and he can afford to keep it going for that long. So hopefully some day the Chinese directors can have that kind of power and resources at their disposal too.

Chow Yun Fat, who in the heyday of Hong Kong cinema was making as many as ten films in a year, has also been lured to Hollywood where he can be choosier about projects. He will next be seen in the third installment of The Pirates of the Caribbean .

As a fan of Pirates , Chow says, I was honored and happy that I can play a part in this movie. The first time I walked on the set it was just like a child going to Disneyland. It was like having your dreams come true.

Chow is also poised to invade another level of the American market; he is featured in a video game created by Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo. Chow says hes not interested in video games but hes fascinated by the process of making one and what that might mean for his future as an actor: You can see Chow Yun Fat jumping in the air, moving. You dont have to use my real person to do that. I think interesting. Sooner or later they wont need Chow Yun Fat doing the action movie any more, they just use my head doing the expression then they can animate it in any kind of movie.

But Zhang Yimou is not interested in animating his actors in Curse of the Golden Flower, even though his film does use a considerable amount of computer-generated effects. The film is one of Chinas most ambitious and boasts the countrys biggest budget to date. Zhang creates visually stunning sets and battle scenes that are awe-inspiring.

Its very easy to get your feet off the ground and get lost in the epic aspects of the film but I always want to make sure that these epic aspects are there to serve the story and to serve the characterizations. Its those characters that I think really speak to people. Its hard for a traditional Chinese film like this for people to really feel that it has some connection with their contemporary lives because it is so far historically removed. But there are these emotional aspects that I think still resonate and its through the details of the film that we try to bring these out.

Gong Li agrees: In a film like this thats on such a big scale and we live in this very opulent world, but thats only one level. The other level is that these characters live lives that are full of little problems and emptiness, jealousy and greed. So we had to work hard to express this kind of a contrast.

And Chow points out that although many scenes had incredible scope and scale, for an actor our acting territory is very small. If you walk too much one way, youre out of frame. You know what I mean? We were shot in a lot of close ups.

Chow, who has made such Hollywood films as The Replacement Killers and Anna and the King , thinks Western audiences will enjoy Curse of the Golden Flower : I think Western audiences will like it. It is very unusual this mixture of heavy drama with the action together, and this is very international.

But determining what will appeal to American audiences can be as tricky as dealing with Chinese censors, and Zhang has dealt with both. Hes had his films such as To Live banned in China, and at least one film, Keep Cool , turned down for U.S. distribution. Zhang says that when it comes to releasing a film in the U.S., its really all in the hands of a few people who are the distributors, and those few distributors have quite a bit of power. Its they that decide what films are going to be seen and which arent, which ones they deem as risky and which ones they see as moneymakers. And its very subjective. So the fate of a film really doesnt have too much to do with the taste of American viewers. It is more the imagined taste these distributors have about what American viewers tastes are.

Zhang Yimou directs Gong Li in Curse of the Golden Flower

But Zhang has managed to overcome both government and marketplace hurdles, and now sees the two overlapping as Chinas film industry grows more conscious of the bottom line.

The censorship system in China is still very much in place, Zhang notes, its still a part of the reality of what filmmakers in China have to deal with every time we get behind the camera. I think the difference is that we have become more and more acclimated to this system. We expect it we know whats coming and weve learned to adapt to it. Which means that some directors go through a kind of level of self-censorship in the screenplay process because if they know that something is not going to pass the censors, they say why bother. At the same time, there is an added level with the investors who are even more sensitive about whats going to get passed because their moneys on the line. So if they see a screenplay and it has some sensitive materialbe it political or sexual or whateverand they know that its not going to pass the muster of the censors, theyll let the director know right off because they are not going to take that financial loss. So increasingly the market is playing an increasingly strong role in what the directors have to do especially when it comes to these investors and making sure the films are going to be moneymaking vehicles.

Some have criticized Zhang for now being preoccupied with delivering moneymaking vehicles. But Zhang continues to move between epics like Curse of the Golden Flower , crowd pleasers like Hero and intimate dramas like Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles . And Zhang is such a good filmmaker that he makes all of them resonant and entertaining.

Companion viewing: Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern, Hard-Boiled

Click here to listen to Beth's feature on Curse of the Golden Flower for The World.