For all of Zhang Yimou's well-earned accolades, a debate simmers among many in the Chinese film elite over the proper perspective to be given the acclaimed director. Central to the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers who ascended to prominence in the 1980s, Zhang and his kinsmen rejected traditional storytelling methods for a more free and unorthodox approach. While diverse in style, they shared a common rejection of the socialist-realist works of earlier Communist-era filmmakers.
Hao Jian, a professor at the same Beijing Film Academy where Zhang studied and later taught, wrote several years ago that Zhang and his upstart contemporaries began their careers making story-based films about the post-colonial, revolutionary and post-revolutionary erosion of Chinese society and culture. It is a slant embodied in Zhang's lauded early works, such as Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern and Lifetimes. However, laments Professor Jian, once the Fifth Generation's suppressed anger was released and they had attained acceptance within both the film industry and the nationalist frame, all that was left was a pursuit of form coupled with Western influence on an increasingly decentralized and commercialized Chinese cinema.
Perhaps my inborn Western sensibilities dissuade me from such criticism since I listed Zhang's wuxia indulgences, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, as my co-best movies of 2005. Likewise goes my assessment of Curse of the Golden Flower, a lavish film that combines Zhang's skill for intricate storytelling with his eye for visual bravado. On the other hand, detractors will find fodder in yet another ornate, fantastical spectacle that, at times, more closely resembles a ride at the Zhang Yimou theme park.
Curse is loosely based on Cao Yu's seminal 1933 play, Thunderstorm, which centers on one family's psychological and physical destruction as a result of corruption and moral depravity. Zhang resets his film to the 10th-century Tang Dynasty, where Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat) has returned to his royal court to find a web of treachery, betrayal and intrigue perpetrated by him, his adulterous empress (Gong Li) and his three sons. What unfurls is a gilded soap opera evocative of an archetypal Greek tragedy or Jacobean revenge play.
Zhang reunites with former muse and lover Gong Li for the first time since 1995's Shanghai Triad. The sumptuous Gong proves the one actor able to compete with Zhang's often oppressively opulent set designs, her captivating visage an undulating veneer of ruthlessness and melancholia. An almost unrecognizable Chow Yun-Fat is both suitably staid and menacing as the embattled emperor, while the award-winning Liu Ye conveys the overwhelming psychological torment consuming the incestuous Crown Prince Wan.
A recurring chrysanthemum theme hails from Huang Chao, who used the flower as his symbol during a real-life failed rebellion against the Tang Dynasty. However, Zhang's other disregards for historical accuracy—particularly titillating costumes that accentuate female bosoms—rankled many critics and sometimes push the film to the precipice of high-brow kitsch. Never mind—though the wuxia be woozy and the plot overblown, Curse of the Golden Flower is an impressive, entertaining entry in the filmography of a versatile filmmaker.
Curse of the Golden Flower opens Friday in select theaters.
Another literary saga set in China and featuring an adulterous wife forms the backdrop for The Painted Veil. This latest adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel bears all the trappings of a stuffy Merchant-Ivory period reprise yet practically crackles with modernity compared with the sanitized 1934 version starring Greta Garbo.
An accomplished cast led by Naomi Watts and Edward Norton tell the tale of Kitty (Watts), an impetuous daughter of privilege who rebels against her mother's Jane Austen-esque precepts by impulsively marrying a decent but reticent medical researcher, Walter Fane (Norton). Typical of the sexually self-indulgent women Maugham often conjures, Kitty soon begins an affair with a married diplomat (Liev Schreiber), which ends when Walter discovers the dalliance and gives Kitty an ultimatum: Travel with him to fight a cholera epidemic in 1920s rural China or suffer the public indignity of a divorce that will reveal her infidelity. Rebuffed by her lover, Kitty leaves with the now embittered Walter.
Their journey toward reconciliation is gradual and incomplete, eventually consisting more of mutual care and respect than full-blown adoration. This is not a timeless literary love story—Kitty and Walter embody the ordinary, sometimes smothered everyday of married couples who long to rekindle the embers of their relationship.
The narrative moves at a two-hour snail's pace and is marred by redundancy and a low-grade misogyny festering below the story's surface. And, too little is made of a British deputy commissioner called Waddington who the terrific Toby Jones (Infamous) plays as a drug-hazed, quasi-expatriate who has been immersed far too long in the heart of Oriental darkness.
Filmed on location, director John Curran presents a gorgeous Chinese countryside replete with sweeping vistas and hidden dangers. As much as disease, Walter must combat the mores of native denizens who perpetuate both the sickness and a distrust of colonial outsiders. Indeed, the meta-moral to Painted Veil lies in its cautionary reminder of the perils facing Occidentals, even well-meaning ones, who ignorantly seek to impose their value system upon disparate cultures.
The Painted Veil opens Friday in select theaters.