“Curse of the Golden Flower” - Zhang Yimou (2006)

Loyalty, Filial Piety, Ritual, Righteousness

These are the four virtues of Confucianism, which have been a guiding moral compass for traditional Chinese society but which have also been cynically exploited by extractive social elements in that society, too.  All four virtues express the advocacy of restraint and the submission of individual aspirations before a common plan. The ramifications of this notion are an underlying theme of Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower, which was both a big-budget [1] historical epic (with the usual violence and histrionics) and an artistic success.
Zhang Yimou’s early films centering around the struggles individuals trying to make their way in difficult social circumstances established him as one of the world’s foremost film artists.  His film narratives were not just about the struggle to find fulfilment in China – they movingly explored the existentialist depths of human longing and resonated on a universal plane.  But then having moved to the top of his profession, Zhang seemed interested in widening his expressive repertoire by venturing into the escapist Chinese wuxia martial-arts genre (Hero, 2002; House of Flying Daggers, 2004). Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) was his third venture in this cinematic style, but to me it represented another shift in direction.  On this occasion Zhang recovered his artistic bearings and managed to produce another powerful statement about the human condition that was worthy of his earlier masterpieces. 

Although it is masterful, this film is a dark, disturbing work – about as bleak as you can go, and Zhang’s artful cinematic expressiveness is employed at full throttle to convey a sense of gloom and despair.  Indeed it is worth comparing this film to its cartoon-like wuxia predecessors in Zhang’s work, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, because the themes and visual stylistics are so sharply in contrast. One thing that all three films share, though, is a complicated set of interlocking relationships involving multiple deceptions as to who one is.  In all three films, the principal characters and the viewer, too, are often deceived about the true identities and past histories of several key people.  Along the way, there is always the question, in the minds of us viewers, as to just when these secrets are uncovered in the minds of the main characters. Because of these complications, I will go over some of the details of the narrative.

Zhang adapted his script from Cao Yu’s 1934 play, Thunderstorm, which concerned moral degradation in contemporary Chinese society.  Zhang moved what was a contemporary story way back in the year 928 of the Later Tang Dynasty [2] around the imperial court of a Chinese emperor (although the story is entirely fictitious). The principal characters are
  • Emperor Ping (played by Chow Yun-Fat)
  • Empress Phoenix (Gong Li)
  • Crown Prince Wan, the oldest son of Emperor Ping (Ye Liu)
  • Prince Jai, the 2nd oldest son of Emperor Ping (Jay Chou)
  • Prince Yu , the youngest son of Emperor Ping (Junjie Qin)
  • Imperial Physician Jiang (Dahong Ni)
  • Mrs. Jiang, the mother Jiang Chan (Jin Chen)
  • Jiang Chan, the Jiang’s daughter (Man Li)
The plot does not have a clearly identifiable structure, but I will divide it into four main stages or “acts”.  Stage 1 concerns the introduction of the principal characters and is dominated by Emperor Ping.  It also establishes that something is clearly wrong with Empress Phoenix. Stage 2 covers more complicated relationships that are evolving in reaction to Ping, who is largely out of the picture in this section.  Stage 3 returns to the imperial court and personal confrontations between the principal characters.  Stage 4 depicts the climactic showdown between Ping and those who oppose him.  Because there are so many deceptions going on in the story, I identify some of them with a “D” at various points along the way.

1.  Emperor Ping and His Court
Initial images show the imperial palace run by thousands of attendants operating in massive mechanized synchronization, with no accommodation for individuality.  At the same time an imperial army led by Prince Jai returns to the capital after a three-year campaign.  When Emperor Ping greets  Jai’s return, it is evident that Ping is still a formidable swordsman and that there may be some future conflict between Jai and Ping.

However, a more prominent conflict is quickly revealed.  Crown Prince Wan has for three years been having a secret affair (D1) with Empress Phoenix, who is not his birth mother.  Also, Phoenix is suffering from some strange illness, which turns out to be due to Ping’s secret order (D2) that imperial physician Jiang add poison to Phoenix’s regular dosages of medicine to cure her alleged anemia.  Administered over two months, this poisonous fungus will destroy the empress’s mental faculties.  In order to protect his own position, Jiang wishes to use his daughter, Chan, who is one of Phoenix’s servants, as a spy; and for similar reasons he encourages her to have a secret affair (D3) with Crown Prince Wan.

When Ping calls the royal family together, we get a picture of his doctrinaire rule.  He sternly reprimands them for not properly aligning themselves with the Heavens (i.e. not following his rules).  Seeing that Phoenix is reluctant to take her two-hourly medical dosages, he insists that she must follow heavenly ordained orders: “medicine is governed by dosage, just as life is governed by natural law,” he reminds her.  In fact he sees it as his duty to maintain law and order within his own family in order to set an example for the whole country.  This follows Chinese tradition, according to which an emperor’s commands are to be rigidly followed according to Confucian tradition, provided that the emperor is recognized to have Heaven’s mandate to rule.  Sitting at the top of the hierarchy, the emperor must embody and enforce the Confucian rule-based system for all to follow.

So the narrative goal of Phoenix is how she can survive in this oppressive situation.

2.  The Jiang Family Intrigue
Phoenix interrupts a tryst between Wan and Chan, and learns about their affair.  From a clandestine meeting with physician Jiang’s wife, she also learns about the poison being administered to her.  But after this meeting, Mrs. Jiang is captured by palace guards and brought before Ping, who recognizes that she is his former lover of 25 years before.  We learn from Mrs. Jiang that back then Ping had been an army officer who had conspired with the King of Liang to take over the throne and marry his daughter, Phoenix. Ping had ruthlessly then ordered the destruction of his lover’s family, but unbeknownst to Ping (D4), she had escaped and married the royal physician.   Given the fact that Crown Prince Wan was not mothered by Phoenix, we suspect that Mrs. Jiang is his birth mother (D5). This would mean that the Wan-Chan relationship is incestuous. In any case, to get rid of the Jiang family messiness, Ping assigns the imperial physician to become the governor of Suzhou and to depart with his family immediately.

So far Phoenix has been seen as powerless, but now it is revealed that she has secret plans afoot to stage a rebellion (D6).  She informs Jai that she wants to force Ping to abdicate the title to Jai, and not the crown prince, Wan.  Jai, citing his devotion to the Confucian value of filial piety says that he cannot act against his father.  But seeing his mother being slowly poisoned by Ping,  he changes his mind; he decides to forgo the Confucian dictum and act according to his compassionate feelings for his mother.

Meanwhile Wan rushes off on horseback to chase after his lover, Chan, who is now on the road with her family to Suzhou.  He meets the family at a roadside inn and learns from Chan that Phoenix has been conspiring with the state army in some way, so he races back to the capital to see if he can put a stop to it.  When Chan’s mother, worried about incest, cryptically tells her to forget about Wan, Chan also rushes back towards the palace.  At this point some mysterious black-clad ninja-like warriors (moshuh nanren?) descend on the Jiang quarters and methodically start killing everyone.  It is clear that Ping’s intention is to exterminate the Jiang clan; only Mrs. Jiang manages to escape, and she also races back to the capital.

3.  Confrontations and Revelations
Back at the palace, the fearful Wan confronts Phoenix about her plans for rebellion.  When his apprehensions are confirmed, Wan angrily stabs himself, but not mortally.  Ping goes to his son’s bedside seeking to gain his confidence and informs him that he has always known about Wan’s affair with the empress.  That evening at a royal banquet honoring Jai’s appointment to lead the palace guards, Chan and her mother, who have been captured by guards, are brought before Ping.  With all the contestants finally in front of each other, angry revelations are made.  Wan and Chan are informed of their incestuous relationship.  Ping tells Chan and Mrs. Yang that they know too much and must be exterminated.  Chan runs away, but the black ninja-like warriors quickly and silently kill both Chan and Mrs. Jiang.

4. The Armed Rebellion
Now the most dramatic and disturbing events of the story take place.  With most of the secrets revealed, the armed rebellion is launched, and Prince Jai’s force of ten thousand soldiers attempts to storm the palace.  Inside the palace and to the surprise of all, Prince Yu suddenly kills Wan and attempts to seize royal power for himself with a small armed force.  But Ping’s ninja-like warriors quickly kill Yu’s men, and then Ping takes off his cloth belt and laboriously and sadistically beats his own son to death with it. 

In the meantime Jai’s attack continues.  Although his forces are initially successful, it becomes clear that Ping had been forewarned by Wan and had prepared a huge imperial army that attacks and overwhelms Jai’s forces.  In one of cinema’s most devastating scenes of military slaughter, we see Jai’s army utterly annihilated. Jai is captured alive and taken before Ping, who informs him that his punishment will be to personally administer his mother’s daily poison until she becomes a vegetable.  Rather than submit to such a horror, Jai kills himself, while the sadistic Ping casually watches and munches on his food.  The film ends with Ping ordering the defiant and completely defeated Phoenix to take her medicine once more.

What are we to make of this quasi-Shakespearean tragedy, filled as it is with such carnage and grief?  Narratives always involve a (usually metaphorical) journey of some sort.  There are invariably various roadblocks, lost trails, and adversaries that must be overcome along the way in the effort to reach the desired destination.  In Zhang Yimou’s films the protagonist’s goals are rarely achieved, and it can be a success even to survive the difficult narrative journey.  With Curse of the Golden Flower, as in Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Shanghai Triad (1995), even survival is denied: all is lost, all hopes are crushed, and the protagonists are annihilated, but this time on a more epic scale.  At its essence this film is a horror story, and it carries the fascination that a good horror story can offer.  In examining the film’s virtues, there are two perspectives worth considering: it’s expression and its larger meaning. 

With respect to the film’s expressive qualities, this is truly a dark and disturbing masterpiece of expressionism.  Zhang Yimou pulls out all the stops to create an oppressive, threatening environment that renders the imperial palace an opulent prison.  The cinematography has its share of martial-arts “wire-foo” swordplay, but it is much more constrained on this occasion and fits much better into the story than such pyrotechnics did in Hero and House of Flying Daggers.  In the action scenes here there is the characteristic stop-and-go cinematic pacing that offers an impressionistic presentation of the action.  Such wildly varying temporality is the way one remembers one’s own experiences of intense actions, and Zhang effectively conveys those feelings here.

But those swordplay action scenes, skillfully presented though they may be, are not what create the truly expressionistic atmosphere of the film. It is the film’s larger scope and long shots involving thousands of people that create the relentless sense of confinement and doom.  Emperor Ping, masterfully played by Chow-Yun Fat, is the embodiment of calculating cruelty that sits at the very top of this overbearing system of coercion.  He is not a howling, fiendish animal, as might be portrayed in lesser horror films; his manner and demeanor is recognizable to us.  We recognize elements of his character in our own midst, and that makes his role even more unnerving to see, even more horrifying to contemplate. Ping is gradually seen to be merely the human face of a some mysterious dark force, which is also manifested by the contingent of ninja-like warriors who suddenly drop down from the sky out of nowhere and swiftly annihilate their victims.  These inhuman killers work silently and seem to represent some satanic force of nature that is beyond human comprehension.  In this sense, they are like ghosts or spiritual demons from whom there is no hope of escape.

The climactic battle scene in which Prince Jai’s army is destroyed is a signal example of this idea.  The giant moving metal wall that imprisons and confines Jai’s army is a figurative indicator of the claustrophobic sense created.  Jai’s army is symbolically crushed by this confinement and is quickly emasculated.  His men are unable to engage in the swordplay for which they are prepared and are instead quickly exterminated by a massive onslaught of arrows fired from over the confining wall.  As we watch this scene, we see human agency crushed by unfathomable, mechanical power.  After the bloody annihilation, thousands of diligent workers rapidly remove all the dead bodies and replant the chrysanthemums in the palace courtyard, leaving it exactly like it looked it before the battle.  No trace of resistance to the pervasive imperial domination is allowed to remain.

These expressionistic elements all contribute to the larger themes underlying Curse of the Golden Flower.  The foundation of the oppressive horror that pervades the environment is the notion of a vast mechanical system that is powered by ordinary humans, not demons.  From the earliest scenes of the film, one sees the imperial system mechanically operating by means of people forced to suppress their individual human traits and act in synchrony with those around them.  Their humanity has been lost and has been made part of an inhuman machine.  To support this suppression of humanity, the four Confucian virtues of “Loyalty, Filial Piety, Ritual, Righteousness” have been invoked in order to promote blind subservience to the authorities. Zhang’s depiction of this blind subservience to autocracy as something that fuels an unspeakable horror is diametrically opposed to his message in Hero, which advocated blind subservience to an all-powerful ruler for the sake of social order.  This sets right the imbalanced view that was projected by Hero.

On this account I would comment that of course we know that social disorder is a fundamental problem and that human social welfare has risen above primitive conditions by means of human institutions that curtail random violence and chaos.  However, these same institutions (such as for example the traditional Confucian social framework) can often be exploited by coercive elites in order to maintain their dominance and suppress human autonomy to an extreme degree.  In films like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, this oppressive social confinement – a system that makes humans operate according to inhuman, mechanical rules – is in the background.  But here in Curse of the Golden Flower, this oppressive system is more explicitly represented. 

This is where the Jiang family plays a role in the story.  The imperial physician is not an evil man, but he has to play his part and contribute to the mechanized evil.  He knows that if he disobeys the emperor’s commands, he and his entire family will be exterminated.  So he and his innocent daughter consent to the system’s commands and participate in the slow poisoning of the empress.  Yet in the end, they “knew too much” and were all exterminated anyway.  Similarly, Crown Prince Wan also submits to the demands of the system and is unwilling to act against it.  His revelations of his mother’s plans to his father ensured that rebellion’s doom.

There were two figures, however, who defied this oppressive system, and interestingly, they were both women: Empress Phoenix and Mrs. Jiang.  These two heroines defied the unvanquishable oppression knowing that they would be destroyed, but they could not agree to suppress their own innate feelings of what is right.  At one point Empress Phoenix confides that she knows she will eventually be defeated and turned into a cretin, but she will not give up without a fight.  In the end Prince Jai was won over to this level of thinking, too.  He tells his father in the last scene that his rebellion was not for personal gain (that is, to become emperor), but to act in support of his mother.  He was acting according to the authentic feelings of his conscience and his heart. 

Gong Li has a difficult role in this film, since her options for action are so limited and she is mostly shown grimacing in pain. Nevertheless, she manages to represent the unquenchable spirit that has characterized some of Zhang’s best films.  In the end and crushed in every way, she doesn’t submit.  She still throws the medicine away in defiance.

  1. At the time of its production, Curse of the Golden Flower had the largest production budget, $45 million, in Chinese film history.
  2. This was a short-lived rule (924 - 936) that prevailed after the fall of the epic Tang Dynasty (618 to 907).

1 comment:

gbg said...

Epic. Magnificent cinematography!