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China 928 AD, the Tang Dynasty: Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat) resides in
the imperial palace with his wife (Gong Li) and three sons, the eldest,
Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), the wisest Jai (Chou Jay) and the youngest and
most naive Yu (Qin Junjie), and as they are preparing for the
chrysanthenum festival, a festival in honour of the Emperor's deceased
first wife - and Wan's mother - everything could be perfect ... but it
isn't: with the help of the Imperial physician Jiang (Ni Dahong) and his
daughter Chan (Li Man), the Emperor is slowly poisoning the Empress,
mainly because she has an affair with her stepson, Wan, while WAn himself
wants to leave the court behind for good and start a new life with young
However, eventually the Empress finds out about her husband's plot from
the physican's wife (Chen Jin) ... who just happens to be the Emperor's
first wife who hasn't died at all but was branded and exiled - and now she
wants revenge on her former husband. Thing is, since she is not only the
mother of Chan but also of Wan, this turns their relationship into incest.
The Empress meanwhile manages to win over Jai to her side in order to
overthrow her husband and install Jai on the throne, as a revenge for him
trying to poison her ...
The whole thing ends in chaos when Wan tries to commit suicide learning
about the plot of his stepmom, then stabbed by his own brother, young Yu,
who also wants to become Crown Prince - but is in the end killed and
beaten to a pulp by his own father -, while both Chan and her mother are
slaughtered by the Imperial guards when trying to sort things out, and
physican Jiang is being killed upon the Emperor's orders. And Jai's
attempt to overthrow his father are subdued by the imperial army who kill
most of his soldiers and take him prisoner.
In the end, the Emperor promises Jai mercy when he from that day on
feeds his mother her (poisoned) medicine - but he rather kills himself
than killing his mom. Be that as it may, the Emperor forces his wife to
take the medicine anyhow ...
In scope, Curse of the Golden Flower has all the elements of a
classic Greek tragedy, including murder among the family, incest,
(attempted) patricide, suicide, madness - and director Zhang Yimou paints
this picture on a big canvas, making this a monumental period piece with
the usual plotting and intrigue quite besides (mostly CGI-generated)
impressive mass scenes, lavish sets (some of them also CGI) and a finale
with plenty of action and violence. However, the film does fall short of
being a masterpiece, the direction is a bit too formalized (even if that
correlates with the fomalized rituals in the Imperial Court) and
everything, even small scenes, is a bit too choreographed to really get
the story and the characters across. That said, Curse of the Golden
Flower is still definitely worth a look, even if it falls a bit short
of its promises.