Monday, August 24, 2015


This isn't a review as much as it is a suggested viewing for Gamesters dealing with scenarios involving imperial palaces, coups and intrigue. There will be spoilers in this post, so don't read it if that's a concern. 

The Curse of the Golden Flower is an unusual film directed by Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers and Hero) and stars Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li. It is an imperial drama set at the end of Tang Dynasty or the Five Dynasties period* and is about an internal scheme by members of the royal family to take the throne. Though it is somewhat light on swordplay and martial arts, the few fight scenes it does feature are striking. Like most of Zhang Yimou's other films, Curse of the Golden Flower makes extensive use of color and color contrast to convey themes. The two main colors in this case are black and gold.

Most of the film occurs within the palace itself, and it does a good job conveying both the beauty and the confusion of this interior. It seems the empress (Gong Li)** is quite ill and taking a dose of thick green medicine every two hours. Over the course of the film it becomes clear that the medicine is the source of her sickness, that the Emperor (Chow Yun-fat) has recently added a new ingredient to the mix: Black Persian Fungus. 

The Royal Family
When her son, Prince Jai, returns back to the palace to assume command of the Palace Guards after three years away at another post, it becomes clear that the Empress intends to stage a coup on the eve of the Chrysanthemum Festival (this is the Golden Flower the title refers to). The Empress convinces Prince Jai to save her from his father by leading the guards on the night of the coup. 

This is an extremely dysfunctional royal family. The Empress's incestuous relationship with her other son, the crown prince Wan, complicates the coup greatly. Technically the empress is not his birth mother, so in the strictest sense of the word, they are not committing incest. However the prince's ignorance of his birth mother's identity ultimately leads to an incestuous relationship with his birth sister. And this is just a small example of the kind of problems plaguing the household. The chief source of consternation appears to be the imperial father. 
The Empress (Gong Li) Takes Her Medicine

The Emperor is quite the menacing father figure. He is oddly lenient of his sons' shortcomings and betrayals but always firmly in control of the household. There are moments when the viewer doubts this, but on the Eve of the Chrysanthemum festival it is clear he is a ruthless and cunning ruler, perhaps impervious to even the most well laid plans. He has agents everywhere, who descent on his opponents (quite literally) like spiders from an unseen web. You never really know when the emperor is alone and vulnerable. 

Chow Yun-fat is incredible as the emperor. He gives is a terrifying performance. It particularly works because he can oscillate believably between a cruel reprimanding side and soft, caring side. Gong Li is equally good in her role as Empress. I think the film largely comes down to their two performances working. You kind of need to want both of the them to succeed even though they are in complete opposition, and both actors are persuasive in this respect. They are helped by an excellent supporting cast. Chen Jin as the emperor's former wife, and Ni Dahong as the imperial physician (and husband of the emperor's former wife) are two that stood out for me. 
The Youngest Prince Takes a Stand

The film culminates with an impressive showdown at the palace. It is a big battle fought in stages and one of the reasons I want to talk about Curse of the Golden Flower

I think the film is useful for gaming because it deals with issues that could come up in a number of campaigns, and is of particular interest to anyone running anything resembling ancient China. The coup scene during the Chrysanthemum Festival is especially helpful to a GM (as are many of the scenes leading up to it where issues of palace security are addressed). 

The Emperor (Chow Yun-fat)
Reflecting in the aftermath
Not only is this a well choreographed battle, it also shows, in a very stylized way, how challenging it might be to pull of such an attack (even when one has the backing of powerful people). It is never portrayed as impossible, it just demonstrates what a palace full of soldiers and bodyguards would look like and how a resourceful emperor might respond as an attack is occurring.  

The other reason is the measures the Emperor uses to protect himself. His guards and agents are masters of stealth. They are literally hanging in the rafters of the palace completely out of sight, lulling his attackers into a false sense of security. When they drop down to fend off an assassination attempt, it is quite the moment and the sort of thing that could work great in a game session. 

Prince Jai leads the charge
But there are other things that make the movie instructive for any campaign where palace life enters into the adventure. Imperial dramas like this provide all kinds of fodder for intrigue. Curse of the Golden Flower suggests a cool seed for a mystery adventure where the victim is not yet dead, but actively being poisoned (and the goal would be for the PCs to figure out by whom and why). The complications of palace life place an interesting restraint on investigating the matter. Even if one doesn't use this as a seed for a mystery, it is a solid foundation for internal conflict in a palace. 

Definitely recommend it for gamers running wuxia or a historical Chinese setting. Would also recommend it for standard fantasy games with a lot of intrigue. It is an odd film in a lot of respects but beautifully shot. And while it isn't a steady flow of combat, when action does arise it is unflinching and violent. 

*The precise date is a little unclear as is the exact setting. 
**Again it is a bit unclear depending on the version whether this is an empress or a queen. Same with the emperor. I am just going to go ahead and stick with what the subtitles said in my version. 


  1. The movie is odd, even somewhat disquieting, but with sumptuous costumes and sets beautifully filmed.

  2. I agree. The scene where the Emperor rebukes the youngest prince for turning against his brother was particularly disquieting (but an important moment to establish the emperor's true character).