"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Saturday, January 20, 2007

"The Curse of the Golden Flower" and Two Ideas of Tragedy

Director Zhang Yimou and Chow Yun-Fat on the set of Sony Pictures Classics' Curse of the Golden Flower - 2006The Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou's latest film to be released in America, is a brilliant motion picture that interestingly exemplifies important differences between East and West.

Following on the heels of two superb, epic dramas released in the United States in 2004—Hero (Ying xiong) and House of Flying Daggers—the Chinese director manages to top those films. The Curse of the Golden Flower is even more visually gorgeous than its recent predecessors, which is saying a lot. Zhang has been making brilliant, critically acclaimed films since his 1987 debut with Red Sorghum.

In Curse, the visual themes are even more cohesive than in the beautifully photographed Hero and Flying Daggers. Red and gold dominate, and the symbolism is carried through thematically, with red characteristically representing blood and life, and gold suggesting both riches and the power and beauty of nature, in its evocation of the sun. Black intrudes as the specter of death. Though these visual cues are truisms nearly to the point of being cliched, Zhang's intelligent use of them, and the astounding beauty of the compositions, enable the visuals to add meaning to the narrative without being annoyingly assertive about it.

As in Zhang's other recent dramas, the interiors of buildings are puzzling mazes, in which the viewer often becomes as lost in the architecture as the characters are in the complex plot.

The plot is indeed complex but told with great clarity and coherence. Gong Li plays Empress Phoenix, who is being slowly poisoned by her husband, the Emperor Ping, played by Chow Yun-Fat. Phoenix is aware of the poisoning but cannot openly disobey the emperor and must continue to take her deadly daily dose of fungus-laced medicine. However, she is plotting to take the kingdom away by conspiring with her elder son, the emperor's second son. (He has a son by a previous wife who is identified later in the film.) On the night of the Chrysanthemum Festival, an army of ten thousand will storm the palace under the command of Prince Jay.

Of course, things don't work out as planned, and the plot twists are truly Shakespearean in character, with the tawdriness of the characters' schemes making a great contrast with the grandeur of the settings and the importance of the events to the empire's future.

And there's the rub. In the end—without giving away any plot secrets—much happens, but nothing changes. And that is so very Eastern, with the cyclical sense of history common in the East. Ultimately, nothing changes. Yin and yang go out of balance, and in the end, they are back in balance. But that is all. Things don't get appreciably better for anybody, and the great irony of The Curse of the Golden Flower is that after all the effort to change who will sit on the throne, none of it changes anything—and, more importantly, it's clear that things wouldn't be noticeably different in the realm if Prince Jay had the throne. The individuals' loves, hatreds, and ambitions put things out of balance, and once the conflicts are resolved, balance is restored. But that's all.

American critics seem to sense this but not understand it at all. For example, Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris claims, "once it's all over, 'Golden Flower,' like 'Hero' and 'Flying Daggers,' leaves a flat taste." Other critics have had the same complaint.

But it's only a flat taste if you're expecting a Chinese director to make Western-style dramas. Which is, of course, a silly thing to ask.

Things are very different in Western drama of the past two millenia. One could surely argue that Greek tragedies exhibit a cyclical sense of history, driven as they are by the idea of fate. In the Christian era, however, Western tragedies have often been driven by a sense of progress. In Shakespeare, for example, there is frequently a great sense of a malign presence being driven out of society. By the end of Hamlet, for example, the stage is littered with the corpses of schemers, miscreants, the indecisive, and the weak, yet the playwright conveys a powerful sense of optimism about the future for the Danish kingdom. At the end of Macbeth, both tyrant and his evil muse are gone. The same is often true of the history plays.

In contemporary times, consider former Hong Kong and now American director John Woo, whose films tend to reflect a belief in the possibility (indeed the necessity) of personal and social transformation. (One of his Hong King films is even named A Better Tomorrow in English translation.) Woo, though born and raised in Hong Kong, was educated in a conservative Lutheran missionary school. His ideas are thus quite Western.

The Curse of the Golden Flower comes from a very different tradition. As in Hamlet, the stage is littered with corpses at the end, but the vision for the future is altogether different. Understanding that difference makes the film a richer and more rewarding experience.

From Karnick on Culture.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

One crucial question: Is the film subtitled or dubbed? I own both Hero and Daggers in subtitled versions. I saw a dubbed version of Hero and it was disappointing to the point of ruination.

S. T. Karnick said...

Good news: the film is subtitled in its U.S. release.

Hunter Baker said...

I deeply loved "For a Better Tomorrow." It was my first Woo film.