You either love him or forgive him but veteran Chinese director Zhang Yimou's lush epics border on the over-indulgent. His latest, Curse Of The Golden Flower, has enough bravura to warrant your attention but never beats this director's early classics. Noel Vera looks at thousands of push-up bras.

I'm not sure if we can call Zhang Yimou a great filmmaker, but in the '80s and '90s he was certainly a force to be reckoned with. For director Chen Kaige he shot "Huang tu di" (Yellow Earth, 1984), a film that announced to the world the presence of the "Fifth Generation" of mainland Chinese filmmakers; three years later, with "Hong gao liang" (Red Sorghum), "Ju Dou" (1990), and "Da hong deng long gao gao gua" (Raise the Red Lantern, 1991) Zhang helped establish the house style of the Fifth Generation--at once old-fashioned in its embrace of melodrama ("Ju Dou" owes a plot twist or two to "The Postman Always Rings Twice") yet new in its utter lack of cynicism (the unabashedly romantic flavor of "Hong gao liang's" love scene); voluptuous in its use of colors, shapes, textures (the dyed cloth in "Ju Dou" filling the screen with ribbons of fluttering scarlet, purple, gold) yet somehow austere in intent and ultimate impact (repeated shots of the compound's imposing rectangular floor plan in "Da hong deng" emphasizing the heroine's imprisonment).

The 1999 "Yi ge dou bu neng shao" (Not One Less) subordinated that gorgeous visual style to the story of a young teacher struggling to keep her class of poor student peasants together. The result, I thought, was a film more persuasively moving (thanks to its countryside grit and simplicity) than any of his earlier efforts.

He's struggled ever since, sometimes in interesting ways: "Wo de fu qin mu qin " (The Road Home, 1999) is a romance told in flashbacks, as the lovers' son arrives from the big city to bury his just-died father (I liked it well enough, save that the mother seemed a tad too self-indulgent); "Xingfu shiguang" (Happy Times, 2001) felt like a reworking of Charlie Chaplin's "City Life" (blind girl given the illusion of a better life by an equally poor benefactor) and suffers in comparison (you also couldn't help but feel sexually predatory overtones--all these middle-aged men, surrounding a helpless blind girl--in what Zhang strenuously tries to present as an innocuous situation).

"Ying xiong" (Hero, 2002) represents a third stage in Zhang's career, the Chinese martial-arts extravaganza set in the country's distant past, where Zhang's often provocative political subtext can be tucked safely away inside an entertaining metaphor. Chris Doyle was the cinematographer and I'm only guessing here, but he apparently took inspiration from an idea Vittorio Storaro tried to work into Warren Beatty's comic-book epic "Dick Tracy" (1990) but failed; Doyle's primary colors aren't there just to make some visual statement, but suggest the emotional tone and philosophical nature of the various points of view making up the film's "Rashomon"-like story. Zhang's follow-up film "Shi mian mai fu" (House of Flying Daggers, 2004) was less impressive, partly because Doyle had been replaced by Zhao Xiaoding (who also does the cinematography of this, his latest), partly because melodrama swamps the already overripe film.

"Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia" (Curse of the Golden Flower, 2006) takes this trend of melodrama and extravagant production design and pushes it to the nth power. With Zhao's help, Zhang fashions a--well, it's hard to say just what: think "Blade Runner" set in the Tang Dynasty, or the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffering its meltdown inside a Chinese restaurant. The décor doesn't just have a poisonously radioactive glow; there's also a delirious tackiness that dares you to respond with something sarcastic (my favorite speculates that set designer Huo Tingxiao must have been "channeling Liberace").

The costumes reflect the outrageousness of the sets--gold silk by the dozen square miles, push-up bras by the thousands, more scimitar-length intricately carved and painted nail extensions than might be found in Wolverine's manicure kit. Sets and costumes are a mishmash of styles--the Forbidden City, a prominent setting for much of the action, wasn't built until the Ming Dynasty, some five hundred years later; some of the palace's defenses--a huge tanklike wall made up of spears and shields--seem cribbed off of, I don't know, either D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance," Anthony Mann's "The Fall of the Roman Empire," even Terry Gilliam's "Brazil."

Arguably odder than the production design is the chosen source for the film's screenplay--"Thunderstorm" (1933), the single most famous drama by legendary playwright Cao Yu (real name Wan Jiabao), done when he was only twenty-three years old. Zhang had gotten in trouble several times before, particularly for "Ju Dou" and " Da hong deng," which were seen as allegories on the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government; in his recent work it's possible to see a reluctance to engage in direct criticism.

"Shi mian mai fu," for example, may feature a secret band of knife-throwing rebels, but the focus is more on their derring-do and love lives than on any particularly despotic government activity. "Ying xiong" on the surface reads as wholehearted endorsement of the government's history of repression (the end--national unity--justifies the means). "Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia," in channeling Cao Yu (who had openly condemned the communists), is more overt: the corrupt emperor (Chow Yun-fat) is secretly punishing his wife (Gong Li) for sleeping with her stepson (Liu Ye)--perversely, by feeding her poisoned medicine that he insists is crucial for her health; his wife in turn plots revenge via a deadly coup attempt.

An outré detail, the sort of vicious slander Jonathan Swift liked to heap upon particularly despised enemies: the emperor suffers from what appears to be a spectacular case of hemorrhoids--his treatment involves huddling in gargantuan throne that doubles as an elaborately herbed and medicated steam bath.

Director Zhang Yimou (left) and Gong Li.

It's difficult to know how to take the film--are we asked to swoon to the passions on display, or laugh at the camp presentation? The sets, costumes, plot twists, even acting style go so thoroughly over-the-top that when one particularly grotesque revelation is made between two lovers you're not so much shocked as shockingly amused by their reactions--eyes wide, jaws dropped, libido unmistakably doused.

But Chow's emperor--I've heard him called miscast, but I'd rather say he's a villain in the classic Hitchcock mode, gracious and gallant and courteous to a fault. His ruthless response to his beloved's fledgling coup attempt inspires Zhang to evoke images from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre; more, Zhang follows this up with a brilliant bit of satire involving thousands of chrysanthemums moving in clockwork precision, the sequence ending with a truly shocking image: all the surviving combatants sitting down to a celebratory family dinner. For a few breathtaking moments Zhang's effrontery cuts through all the brocaded silk, heaving bosoms, overilluminated screens; for a few moments the film is truly worth seeing.

"Ying xiong" was a huge hit; "Shi mian mai fu" did respectable business; this picture--despite the large budget, terrible notices, and unspectacular boxoffice--will probably make its money back. From controversial arthouse filmmaker Zhang has evolved into a recognizable international figure with a celebrity status similar if not equal to John Woo or Ang Lee--only Zhang seems committed to making Chinese films, using mostly Chinese talent and production facilities financed largely by Chinese money, and he seems to want to say something beneath all that hoopla.

I'm not exactly happy with what Zhang's become (I thought his "Yi ge dou bu neng shao" was his finest work to date), but considering his competition--I hear James Cameron of "Titanic" fame is planning yet another 200 million dollar bonfire of the vanities--frankly, I'd rather root for the Fifth Generation veteran making hash of his culture, slipping subversive subtexts past government censors, overall showing Hollywood that there's an alternative to their flavorless factory product.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 02/09/07.
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February 23, 2007