Curse of the Golden Flower is eye-bleedingly beautiful, but beauty, easily abused and easily misread, has a curse of its own: reviewers seeking the frugality of seriousness were already leery of splendor in the days of Von Sternberg and Ophüls and Minnelli, and knee-jerk distrust of sumptuous surfaces has hardly waned in the years since (vide the uncomprehending scorn heaped onto Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette). The opulence of Zhang Yimou's new film is mystical, everything is ceremonial and everything is ritualized, from the dressing of the palace servants to the preparation of tea to the polishing of a throne; the Empress (Gong Li) strides through the corridors as if inseparably a part of the gold-and-blue chambers, yet a ground-level shot early on, looking up at the suddenly shuddering regent, locates the first crack in the grandeur. The year is 928 A.D., in the midst of China's later Tang dynasty: Chow Yun Fat, his prole rascality hidden under a graying beard and chilling regal armor, is the Emperor, returning from the front for the Chong Yang Festival, as well as for a bit of ruthless house-cleaning. Strands of intrigue proliferate -- three sons (Jay Chou, Qin Junjie, Liu Ye) vie for the crown; Prince Wan (Liu) has an illicit affair with the Empress, his stepmother, but much prefers the pretty daughter (Li Man) of the imperial doctor, who has his own secrets. The Empress pretends not to notice that her medicine's been spiked with mind-destroying toxins, for, as the Emperor reminds her, their family "has to set an example for the entire country."
Crane shots give sweeping views of palatial expanses full of yellow blossoms, yet Zhang's ornate mise-en-scène is as claustrophobic as Eisenstein's in the Ivan the Terrible saga, another portrait of a cancerous order quickly dissolving from within. Also like that picture, the spilling-over intensity is out of grand opera, with every performer breathing fire to keep from being swallowed by hue-coded pageantry: the metallic corset into which Gong is squeezed can't keep her from reaching to the heavens ferociously, another spectacle of feeling distilled to gesture and gaze (critics predictably were more at home mocking her English in Miami Vice). Zhang sends warriors gliding into a raid with grappling hooks mainly to appease the crowds who saw Hero and House of Flying Daggers only as cool martial-arts revivals; however, the interest in an imploding family (thus, in an imploding society) places the picture closer to Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and even Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, where frayed familial bonds were tentatively, but optimistically, bridged by modern technology. No such hope in Curse of the Golden Flower: casting the two late-'80s superstars (Gong in Zhang's mainland dramas, Chow in Hong Kong actioners) as the imperial couple might suggest a reassuring national unification, but, seen by a determinist overhead shot, the royal family sitting at the table resembles an ominous sundial, ticking away as rot surges to the surface. Repressed tensions finally explode into hordes of clashing betrayals as fireworks celebrate decimation -- much like the Empress's floral embroidery, Zhang's beauty is one of furious defiance.
Defiance is the last thing in The Pursuit of Happyness' peanut-brain: "inspired by true events," the story follows the one-scrape-after-another arc required for updating the Job lesson, yet "Trust the System" is rubber-stamped in every slick frame, seconded by the ghost of President Reagan ("we can turn this around," the TV image assures the luckless hero) then clinched by a gust of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." What, no "Ooh Child (Things Are Gonna Get Easier)"?! Things sure did -- the flick's real-life protagonist, Chris Gardner, would eventually updgrade from virtual homelessness to Wall Street millions, though Will Smith plays the character only during his down-on-his-luck stage, the better to warm the hearts of Oscar voters everywhere. Set in San Francisco during the early 1980s (there's a Raging Bull poster tossed in, if you don't believe me), the film has Smith's Gardner lugging around useless medical props, watching over his kid (Jaden Smith, Will's son) after his wife (Thandie Newton, again playing the shrew -- where's the lyricism that Bertolucci and Demme mined?) leaves him, and attending a competitive stock-broker internship while sleeping in subway restrooms. All of it tailor-made for the flossy mawkishness of Italian filmmaker Gabriele Muccino, who nevertheless understands this is Smith's baby -- the central passage has the superstar playacting at being poor as his character employs shuffling cleverness to entertain an audience of old, white folks, which gives you the essence of the picture. Counterfeit emotion and submerged racism are still Happyness in Hollywood.
Stars like playing "poor," and they also like playing "political." Natalie Maines, mouthy lead singer of The Dixie Chicks, triggered a shitstorm in 2003 when, playing at a London concert right before the beginning of the U.S. "liberation" of Iraq, she zinged the antiwar crowd with that "We're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas" aside. Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck were there to record it for their new documentary, Shut Up & Sing, which captures the fallout of the bombshell: all of a sudden the country-radio favorites, just a few months earlier warbling the national anthem to whole stadiums full of red-state approval, become to flag-waving eyes nothing less than the brides of Satan (or of Saddam, at the very least). Boycotts follow, CDs are burned and stations refuse to play their music, Bill O'Reilly advises a good slapping, Toby Keith offers a boot in the ass -- yet Maines' original comment was scarcely a lefty salvo, really more of a high-five to a receptive audience, delivered, like any criticism during the with-us-or-against us era, with a hint of hesitation. The corporate interests inherent in this whole affair hint at the commercial consequences a political decision generates in a capitalist arena, though the thrust of the movie lies in the trenchant mix of image-rebuilding strategies and genuine politicization the Chicks undergo as a result. By the time Maines reprises her remark, the group's been made into a trio of free-speech poster gals flaunting defiance to music charts; Kopple, the docu-activist of Harlan County U.S.A. and American Dream, surely appreciates the irony, and the inspiration.
Another actorly favorite: junkies. The Australian drama Candy presents Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish as the most photogenic addicts since Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream, bravely refusing to wash their hair for their art's sake while slogging through scene after spurious scene of their standard spiral. Celestial swelling accompanies a close-up of Geoffrey Rush as the heroin needle hits home -- "The world is very bewildering to a junkie," the voiceover goes, yet Neil Armfield's film remains too tasteful a depiction of "edgy" performer vanity to compare to Drugstore Cowboy or Jesus' Son, or to live up to its portentous Heaven-Earth-Hell trajectory. The safe phoniness of Candy's "Hell" is shamed by the harrowing force of Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a picture I'm glad I finally caught before tallying up my best-of list. An old man shuffles back and forth between Romanian hospitals, meeting infuriating, bleakly funny neglect while feeling life leaking out of him; it could be a summary for one of Alexandr Sokurov's unearthly visions of tragic disintegration (The Second Circle, say) but Puiu's grasp is mercilessly physical, much closer to the Dardenne brothers. (As with L'Enfant, the film progresses as if in one single, suffocating take.) The inferno here isn't pretty stars shunning makeup, simply the horrid clarity of life expiring in an uncaring world.
Reviewed December 22, 2006.