Like his Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou's third global-market gigaproduction makes little sense in narrative terms even after two screenings, but the sets, costumes, and cinematography are so intoxicating that it doesn't much matter. Zhang's interest in the wuxia (martial arts) film may well extend no further than the kick he gets out of constructing ostentatious palaces and then watching from behind the lens as they crumble to the ground—he's a movie director, in other words. As much as Marie Antoinette, Curse of the Golden Flower, set in the Later Tang dynasty, circa A.D. 928, pits its cloistered melodrama against the riffraff that threatens to penetrate the royal chambers. It's a battle of genres, and after 90 minutes of mostly talk, talk, talk, ostensibly there to placate bourgeois newcomers to Asian action, the wuxia wins.
The Will Durant quote with which Mel Gibson commences Apocalypto could apply here too: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." First seen getting dolled up and draped in gold from head to toe while warriors approach her fortress on horseback, Gong Li's medicine-swilling Empress is regrettably anemic—ditto her dialogue. Blame the Emperor (a bored-looking Chow Yun-Fat), who has been peppering his lady's herbal remedies with poisonous black mushrooms. Meanwhile each of three young princes (Jay Chou, Liu Ye, Qin Junjie) is scheming for power or love, the incestuous machinations failing to excite as much as the sight of black-suited, scythe-twirling assassins swinging on ropes toward the palace like Spider-Man on his web. Zhang's impressively acrobatic battle scene culminates in a torrential CGI spear storm that sets out to blockbust and does, even by, say, Two Towers standards.
Until then, the film's seemingly endless revelations of double- and triple-crosses would play like bad mid-'60s Hollywood-epic wanking were it not for Zhang's mise en scène, including long blue, green, and orange corridors that suggest a kaleidoscope in a funhouse. (Production designer Huo Tingxiao deserves every award.) Color combos here border on the psychedelic, but alas, they don't inspire Zhang to get trippy with the storytelling. This is the director's flimsiest material to date, and while you'd hope for some sexual frisson in his first film with Gong since Shanghai Triad in '95, her scenes with Chow deliver nothing but more evidence that Zhang is mainly in it for the carpentry and the computer FX. Flying daggers return in full force, but the neato trick this time is the slo-mo spray of sparks from a sword as it scrapes against armor or another blade. A great leap forward in film technology or another example of civilization destroying itself from within?