Curse Of The Golden Flower

Curse Of The Golden Flower (2006)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou
Extras: Featurette, Los Angeles Premiere

For fans of Hong Kong movies, the name Yimou Zhang creates sparkling eyes of excitement, conjuring up images of movies such as "Hero," "Raise The Red Lantern" or "House Of Flying Daggers." Known for his dazzling movies, his intricate stories and heartfelt drama, Yimou Zhang has long become a superstar among Asian directors and with his latest film "Curse Of The Golden Flower" he pales virtually everything he's done before.

"Curse Of The Golden Flower" takes us into the Forbidden City during China's Tang Dynasty, which is historically regarded as one of China's most flourishing periods. But there are many secrets hidden behind the closed walls of the Forbidden City. The emperor (Chow Yun Fat) has successfully and peacefully expanded his empire by taking the princess of a neighboring province as a wife. Now, he no longer needs her and over the course of the past 10 years he has systematically poisoned her to make sure no suspicion of foul play is casting a shadow on his unrivalled power. The Empress (Gong Li) however is well aware of what is happening to her and plans her revenge before she dies. With the help of her sons she plans to reveal some of the Emperor's darkest secrets to the public but her plans are derailed when she realizes that even her sons have secrets of their own. Unperturbed however she presses on and with the help of her oldest son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), she prepares for the celebration of the chrysanthemum, her day of retribution.

Movies like "Curse Of The Golden Flower" simply leave you utterly speechless. In fact, it may be the single most dazzling movie I have seen in years. The story is intricate and filled with little moments where we get a glimpse at the characters' inner souls. Cast with luminaries like Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li – some of Asia's biggest stars – the film is marvelously played out. Chow Yun Fat plays the bad guy so brutally honest with piercing eyes, grunts of disgust for anyone who may disagree with him, that you may in fact see him in a different light. Typically confined to parts that play up the actor's charm, this time we get to see Chow Yun Fat like you've never seen him before. His portrayal is accentuated even more by Gong Li as the Empress who is growing increasingly frail physically but has a spirit that is as fiery as it could possibly be. Both actors bring such depth to their parts and convey some of the most powerful moments through their eyes or a small facial gesture that it is hard not to be impressed, feel contempt for the Emperor and heartfelt sorrow for the Empress.

The story and characters are masterfully framed by some of the most mesmerizing movie sets you may have ever seen. The scale of the sets is simply mind-boggling as the filmmakers reproduced virtually the entire Forbidden City on a studio lot, filled it with thousands of extras and millions of golden chrysanthemums. Interiors are so lush and colorful that the entire screen turns into a moving painting at times while never overpowering the action itself. The movie's climax – which I do not wish to discuss and spoil for you – is simply the most visually arresting sequence I have ever seen on film. It is not only an incredibly display of color, light and contrast but also perfectly done to emphasize the underlying tragedy turning it into a truly heart-wrenchingly beautiful and certainly epic moment. It will leave you absolutely breathless, I promise.

I have been holding off on this review for some time because I wanted to see the Blu-Ray version of the movie above anything else – and I am glad I did. The 1080p widescreen transfer on this release is simply the most beautiful picture you could imagine. The movie's production design is showcasing some absolutely amazing settings and costumes with some of the most elaborate and detailed nuances. The embroidery on the cloth, the super-fine craftsmanship and details on the jewelry are what give this movie an air of splendor that brings to live China's best. This high definition transfer does a marvelous job bringing it all out in such clarity that it boggles the mind. A quick comparison to the DVD version will immediately cure you from any standard definition preferences you may have. While the DVD transfer is excellent in its own right, it simply cannot even remotely match the detail, definition and clarity of the high definition image on display here. The picture is simply flawless and reproduces the lavish colors with such richness and vibrancy that your eyes will be glued to the screen from the first to the last frame. With this release we clearly have reached a new level of reference for live action movies in high definition.

The audio presentation of the movie is equally impressive, presenting the movie in its original Mandarin language. With incredible surround usage, the track is aggressive and highly directional at all times. During quiet moments it uses ambient effects to create a sense of scale for the environments and during the action and swordfight scenes. Dialogues are meticulously reproduced and even the lowest whispers are clearly distinguishable. The movie boasts a score that is perfectly combining the action and drama of the story and with its wide frequency response and the lossless presentation, prepare for an impressive presentation throughout. The movie's audio is available as a lossless 5.1 channel PCM track – which is as good as any audio presentation will get – as well as Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in Mandarin and as an English dub. Take my advice and forget the dub. Not that it's truly bad, but to get the film's maximum impact I feel it is essential to see it in its original language with the proper inflections in the voices as opposed to the more "distant" interpretation of a dubbing actor in a recording studio.

As extras the release contains a short featurette about the making of the film. It feels awkwardly rushed though and covers subjects only peripherally. While it does give a general overview over the scope and effort that went into this masterpiece, it is not nearly enough to make you fully appreciate the years of effort that must have went into this production.
A short featurette with clips from the red-carpet during the movie's premiere in Los Angeles is also included.
A remarkable film like this should have deserved a much bigger focus on the supplements but being a foreign movie and Sony's negligent treatment of their Asian films in the past I suppose this is sadly as much as we'll ever see in terms of bonus materials for this film.

I am fully aware that I've been throwing around a lot of superlatives in this review but believe me this film is like nothing you have ever seen and it will give you a completely new perspective on the term "high definition." But also from a cinematic standpoint the movie sets new standards from dramatic storytelling and the swordfight movie in general. It is a film that will sweep you off your feet and transport you into another time and another world. This high definition version has just raised the bar a good number of notches making it a true reference disc. Widely overlooked unfortunately, this is a film you have to have in your collection. Use it purely as a showcase disc, if you wish, and I have no doubt before long you will fall in love with this marvelous epic that stands out like a beacon among current movie fare.