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
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
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
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
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.