Curse of the Golden Flower is a Chinese film directed by Zhang Yimou, who also did House of Flying Daggers and Hero. It’s based on an old play from the 1930s called Thunderstorm, by Cao Yu, although very clearly the story is basically King Lear. Thunderstorm has been adapted many times previously, including as a TV show in the ‘90s.
In 2006 it was the most expensive film ever made in China, but that record was passed by others long ago. It is an amazing-looking movie, of course, although the story isn’t as good as Zhang’s other films. Set during the Tang dynasty, it’s about infighting within a famous royal family in lavish epic style, as only the Chinese can do anymore.
Chow Yun-fat plays the Emperor, in a role that brought him back to China at the end of his attempt to make it in Hollywood. It’s a dysfunctional family saga, where someone has poisoned the Empress, who has been having an affair with the Emperor’s first son. The Emperor is a mad old man in the King Lear tradition, and of course his grip on power over his empire is under threat from all sides.
You’ve seen versions of this before, so the plot isn’t the point. It’s absolutely breath-taking to look at—Zhang is a master of visuals, and it is to Chinese historical drama what Johnny Guitar is to the Western. The temple/palace they live in is a golden splendour full of rainbows, which makes up to the lacklustre story. It’s more of a drama than either Hero or House of Flying Daggers, which are in the traditional wuxia film. The production design, costume design and visuals really make the film, although that said, despite its epic scope, it is one of the weaker films from this director. It’s not as action-oriented as ether of the others mentioned, which are also more focussed, while this film is sprawling.
The film was made at a weird point in Chinese filmmaking. I think it was one of the first films there to use expensive CGI, mostly for large crowd scenes. Some of it has not aged well, and as a result it looks little too xBox at times.
The re-release from Fabulous Films includes multiple making-of featurettes.