Lowdown: Masters and Servants, the Chinese version (cleavage included).
The Chinese director Yimou Zhang might have done plenty of films, but as far as I and most of the people relevant to me are concerned he was known for only two of them: Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Both became household names because of their stunning visuals, with both probably being the nicest films ever on the eyes as far as colors and looks are concerned. Colors were so pivotal in his films and you will certainly note that the word “color” is often repeated in this review.
Now the same dude is back with the similarly colorful Curse of the Golden Flower, yet he’s armed with a catch: unlike its predecessors, Curse is mostly a drama and not an action film.
Set in China some thousand years ago, the story takes place almost entirely inside the emperor’s castle. And what a mighty castle it is, huge, lavish and colorful, filled with everything one can imagine. To quote from Aladdin, this castle has servants to help the servants’ servants. All the servants are there to serve the royal family, which consists of father and mother emperor as well as their three princes.
There is a lot going on with the royal family. As the film starts we learn that the empress is being forced to drink her medicine on a regular basis. Quickly enough we, as well as the empress, learn that she is being poisoned through those medicines, and that it is the emperor who is behind it. This exposes us to a set of political intrigues, magnified exponentially as we learn about the various intrigues taking place with the three sons. All want their own way, all fight for power for one motive or another, and as the film progresses you realize that with all the spectacular-ness of the castle there is something very rotten in the kingdom of China portrayed through the film.
After a while that is too long a while in my taste (I started getting bored) the film reaches a point where disputes are being solved by force. This sets a collection of action scenes that are on the very spectacular side, including some colorful army fighting scenes that have all the good things Chinese martial arts films can muster. Those scenes compensate to one extent or another for the previous boredom, and eventually we have ourselves a very Shakespearean affair on our hands, albeit a very colorful one.
While most of the actors were unfamiliar to me, Curse does have Chow Yun Fat doing a passable job as the emperor and Gong Li doing an impressive job as the empress. She carries the film as the lead character quite impressively with the aid of one mighty cleavage. Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen photos from the film or if you’ve seen the film itself, but the one thing that you will take with you from the film other than the colorfulness is the cleavages. Speaking for myself, I never associated Chinese films with breasts; Curse of the Golden Flower exposes the viewer to new horizons there, even if it never delivers any nudity.
With the cleavages out of the way, I have to say the thing that annoyed me the most with Curse of the Golden Flower were the subtitles. The DVD’s subtitles were integrated to the film (that is, you couldn’t cancel them through the remote or choose another language). On its own that’s not bad, unless you speak Chinese and want to get rid of them. The problem was that the subtitles were only displayed when the characters were actually speaking, getting themselves removed the second the speaking is over; which usually meant that I couldn’t finish reading them on time and had to fumble for the remote to rewind or annoy my partner with “what did he just say, what did he just say” questions. There is really no excuse for that; anyone reading the subtitles could have realized they’re not there long enough. Things get particularly stupid when someone says a word in Chinese that translates into an entire paragraph of English, which (laughs aside) does happen more often than not in Curse and leaves you cursing.
Best scene: The drama is well built and the acting is good, but the gigantic army vs. army scenes are simply spectacular. You will know what I’m talking about when you watch the battle scenes in the castle’s court.
Picture quality: As expected, everything is, well, colorful. But it’s not just that: the colors are very well rendered in the DVD, with distinct hues for different moods and settings. There is some noise that spoils the party, but overall the DVD is well colored and rich in detail.
Sound quality: How can I best put it? I find it hard to remember the last time I heard a film as good as Curse of the Golden Flower. The magic word is dynamic range: there are scenes that are quiet and subtle, and they are contrasted with extremely bombastic scenes. All the while imaging is articulate and the level of detail is high. This “Made in China” film sure shows a thing or two to most American productions when it comes to production values!
Overall: Often exciting, very nice to the eye, but still – not the most interesting film ever. 3.5 out of 5 stars. Flying Daggers is still the best of this lot.