CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER - Mum's the Word
by Dr. Craig D. Reid
It's no secret that ever since Ang Lee's CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) hit stateside, Chinese wuxia films have suffered roller coaster box office and theatrical distribution successes in Hollywood. Maxing out in 2,027 theaters, CROUCHING TIGER's US gross was over $128 million. Comparatively, HERO (2004) played in 2,176 theaters and earned $53.6 million, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004) in 1,189 theaters to accumulate $11 million, KUNGFU HUSTLE (2005) played in 2,503 theaters and garnished $17.1 million, THE PROMISE (2006) only earned $669,625 from 213 theaters and FEARLESS made $24.6 million playing in 1,810 theaters.
China's film industry is banking on Zhang Yimou's latest epic, CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (budgeted at US $45 million), to pump new wuxia air into China's Hollywood balloon after it lost much of its qi with Chen Kaige's THE PROMISE. Zhang returns to the hallowed hallways of halberd hoopla with a tale of court intrigue occurring near the end of China's Tang dynasty. CURSE is a curious maze of deception, backstabbing and decay, brilliantly translated by Zhang into what is perhaps China's last hope for keeping alive a film genre that has been steadily falling (or failing) in the West since HERO.
Zhang spoke (in Mandarin) to kungfumagazine.com several weeks ago and shared his ultimate dream of a West that is open to watching the wide variety of movies Chinese filmmakers have to offer. "But at the moment the costume action films seem to be the only genre of films that are acceptable by Western audiences from China, and nothing much at this point can be done about that," he says.
"We talk about this a lot in China and wonder if this is the only kind of Chinese films that Westerners want to watch. As it turns out, it is the only genre of films we do that has success in the American mainstream market, and to change this situation will take time. So if one of these films is no good and does badly in the West, then no one will watch the film and it will affect us. There's a saying, ‘Eating the fat guy in one bite is impossible.' So because things need time, it's important that these type of action films don't fail or we may lose the opportunity to have Western audiences watch other Chinese films."
Set late in the Tang dynasty (923-936 AD) over a 13-year span considered part of the "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms" period (907-960 AD) - an era that saw extreme division in China and its peoples - CURSE is a fictional account of how China's emperor (Chow Yun-fat), upon returning from battle against the Mongol hordes, uses the celebration of the Chong Yang festival as pretext for a dastardly scheme to tie up the many loose ends in his life, which include his ailing empress wife (Gong Li), an adulterous stepson, and a mishmash of other court intrigues - a recipe for rot and bloodletting that will stain the golden glow of chrysanthemum blossoms in China for years to come.
Besides the hidden meanings in CURSE (Western critics will no doubt see metaphors for the plight of the Chinese people under Communist rule and the government's stance on human rights and cover-ups (recently SARS and the bird flu)), there are a few other topics worthy of discussion. When I last spoke with Zhang, he said that FLYING DAGGERS would be his last martial arts film. Furthermore, CURSE not only reunites Zhang with actress Gong Li (who debuted in Zhang's first film RED SORGHUM (1987) and then starred in Zhang's next six films), it also stars Chow Yun-fat playing for the first time a "real" baddie (although a "villain" in several early John Woo films, Chow's characters were ultimately men of good conscience). So when you consider that Chow is a recognizable hero to American audiences, and Zhang and Li had a highly publicized affair 10 years ago, why did Zhang make these casting choices and why the return to a genre he had laid to rest?
With a wide-eyed grin Zhang says, "The film is based on a famous play - LEI YU (THUNDERSTROM) - written by Cao Yu, one of the founders of the Beijing People's Art Theater and China's most famous playwright), and it is still performed in China today. In fact, anyone who studies theater studies this play. So it dawned on me to adapt this play to film, something nobody has ever tried before.
"Of all the Chinese actors today there is only one actor that has the ability to play this emperor role and that is Chow Yun-fat," Zhang insists, "and the way he played the role was much more complicated than in the original stage play. This emperor is a very bad guy, yet his story is tragic. Although he looks successful and wins in the end, he is really lonely and fails. Chow conveyed this failure with overwhelming abandonment.
"Similarly with Gong Li," he reflects, "if you look at the character's age and all the Chinese actresses out there who can play the empress…only Gong Li can do it. Over the years, her acting has matured and this film gave her room to express herself.
"She really is a complex character," Gong Li relates (in Mandarin) to kungfumagazine.com. "She's crazy, and I must admit it was a great opportunity to work with Zhang again. I needed to develop different emotions and feelings with respect to the relationships that empress has with the people she is surrounded with, like her love relationship with one son, the motherly love with the youngest son, the sexual relationship with the other son, and a love-hate relationship with her husband the emperor. And then add on the emotion of being poisoned, knowing that it can kill her, and then she has to face what she is lacking in life, love and the powerlessness of her situation- Well, it just adds up to one rich, challenging character. Also, when you do action films, it must be an action film; when it's a love or drama film, it must have love and drama in it. I like all these kinds of films, and I feel Zhang is the only director that can create a good mix of all of these things in one film."
Speaking of action, although most Hong Kong and Chinese actresses don't practice martial arts, many have made their name and fame by starring in martial arts films. Gong is one of the few big Chinese stars who has melded an incredibly diverse career without starring in a martial arts film. Furthermore, of the few martial arts films that she has appeared in (SEMI-GODS AND SEMI-DEVILS (1994)), she has resisted doing fight scenes. "It is easier to do action films because of course you can have action doubles and make it look like you have good fighting ability. But-" Gong pauses for an emphatic stare. "As an actor, I don't wish to follow the trend, and I want to keep doing drama films knowing that I don't need a double. Like in any film an actor must do, I don't want a director to waste my talent."
One of the dangers facing CURSE is that it is being touted as a martial arts epic and in reality it is not. It's an interesting drama that infuses some eye-popping martial arts action set pieces. The film's bewitching slash of sword and steel comes to us compliments of Ching Siu-tung, considered the father of "wire-fu" and in my opinion the best wire stunt coordinator in the history of film. Zhang has had Ching aboard for all of his martial arts films, from TERRA COTTA WARRIORS (in which Zhang was an actor) to HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS and CURSE.
"I've become so accustomed to working with Siu-tung," Zhang says appreciatively. "He is the most adept in visually combining the flying style of action with a romantic sensibility. Also, he is able to anticipate what I'm looking for, and we work well together and understand what each other wants. He and Yuen Woo-ping are quite different, where it seems Woo-ping can do more realistic fighting. So for CURSE, I asked Ching to not only bring the romantic look to the action, but I wanted the fights to be solid, physical and more realistic and not just flying here and there. Yes, we had flying in the film, but that was not during the actual fighting bits but in the lead-ups to the fights. He is a very creative man, and he came up with stuff not seen before in Chinese film.
"When it came to filming the action, I tried to create space for Ching while also instilling into him my imagination and visions for action. I wrote very specific things in the script, for example the assassins dressed in black and how they fly, then float down. Ching brings the visions alive. He'll come up with things, we meet, discuss and I give him space to create. It's a good way of working together; two heads are better than one when doing action. It's also about respect for each other and working together."
Zhang recently turned down a Hollywood offer to direct an American remake of the highly successful South Korean horror/war film R-POINT, saying that he could never compare to Ang Lee, whom he feels is the best Chinese director for effortlessly sliding between Chinese and Hollywood film. "I am willing to make Chinese films, but once you leave your home soil, it makes it very difficult to make films. And so it is from this aspect that I really respect Ang Lee," Zhang openly admits. "He makes great Chinese and Hollywood films, and he's the only Chinese filmmaker capable of doing this. This is a miracle and unique situation, and can't be repeated. But if Hollywood is willing to give me money to make Chinese films in China, I am open to it. If they ask me to leave China to make a film, there is a problem, because there is only one Ang Lee in the world."
Zhang's humility is a rare trait among filmmakers, especially when you consider that he's a mainland Chinese director saying this about a Taiwanese director. But Zhang should not sell himself short; he is, after all, making a different kind of mark. As of this writing, Zhang is directing the great Spanish tenor Placedo Domingo at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, where Domingo is playing Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (BC 221-206). Furthermore, when Beijing was chosen host for the 2008 Summer Olympics, Zhang was asked to direct the opening and closing ceremonies. So what can Zhang share with us about the Olympic ceremonies?
Zhang roars with laughter. "The ceremony is a national secret, and all the ways of the fireworks and how the people will march in is top secret." He pauses, nods, then grins. "But I will let you in on a little bit. My thoughts are that I want to express emotion and feelings in the opening ceremony, and create a unique style not seen before by the world.
"I don't think it should all be about how the world sees Chinese culture, it must reveal other things. China is modern, and it's important to show the world this. We're a part of this world, have a good culture, yet we're just like you guys, part of a big family, and this is the Olympic spirit. But now the world is full of terrorists, wars and scary activities, so the interaction and communication of one country with another is very important. I'd like to express this in the opening ceremony and show that China is part of the world."
Which brings us to Zhang's final comment and the key point of the film - where Zhang expounds on the falsehood of "fung jian," the ancient system of monarchy, as related to the audience during the finale of the chrysanthemum gala.
"I want to show that the monarchy system of the old days is unrealistic," Zhang says. "The emperor wants to cover up his guilt of crimes and so he uses surface things to cover up his criminal acts, where this emperor believes that tradition is more important than the crimes he commits. I wish to convey the ridiculousness of this fung jian and the close-mindedness of the monarchy culture. This makes Chow's character really a victim; he's sad, miserable and living a lie. He is very xu rong, a person who is old and superficial. I hope that the audience can see the tragedy of the individual and that there is no real winner here. Also, no matter how beautiful the package and the wrapping on it, or how beautiful the color, it is all just surface. I think we can all relate to this sort of thing at one time or another in our lives."
|Discuss this article online|
|The Curse of the Golden Flower|
Written by Dr. Craig D. Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM