In the course of Hollywood history, movie genres have grown from the the lower regions, among the ticket buyers and popcorn munchers, in the Saturday matinees and with the dime store, penny-a-word trash classics. The Western was the first of these, making its movie debut as early as the movies themselves, with The Great Train Robbery (1903). Not fifty years had gone by before some wise guy had the idea to take this ground-level idea and turn it into an impressive, blue-ribbon pageant, a noble, tasteful new object worthy of respect. These came in the form of High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953), praised through word of mouth, as Westerns for people who don't ordinarily like Westerns. Critics ate them up. And, if you'll notice, the Western genre is more or less gone.
The same thing happened to musicals. As soon as pictures learned to talk and all through the 1950s, musicals ruled, and plenty of great, small ones crooned and tapped their way across screens, much to the unfettered joy of fans. But in the 1960s, the graceless, inflated, gargantuan West Side Story (1961) -- a musical for people who don't ordinarily like musicals -- came along. And now the musical is more or less gone (and, I'm sorry, but Dreamgirls doesn't count).
Now, we're witnessing the death of the martial arts movie, and Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower is one of the first -- and perhaps one of the last -- coffin nails. Martial arts movies first crossed over to the U.S. in the early 1970s with Bruce Lee. Like the Western and the musical, they appealed mainly to converted fans -- with their bad dubbing, noisy soundtracks and the fact that they only played in the seediest and most out-of-the-way theaters. The tradition continued throughout the 1990s, as fans sought badly transferred videos and DVDs, or turned up at revival houses to catch their favorite films. When something like Rumble in the Bronx (1996) came to theaters, it remained a present for fans, complete with its bad dubbing and laughable production values.
Ang Lee changed all that with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). It took the genre, slowed it down and decorated it with pretty baubles. Suddenly the mainstream media began getting excited about "the martial arts" film, as if, finally, there was a "good" one. Lee has moved on, but Zhang has contributed three more of these pageants to cinema history. I consider his Hero (made in 2002, released in 2004) the genuine article, since it had the good fortune to cast the formidable Jet Li in the lead role. When he moves, jumps, kicks or spins, you'd better believe it's for real. But House of Flying Daggers (2004) tried to accomplish the same thing with mere actors and failed miserably, although you'd never notice from reading the reviews; most critics lumped the two films together as twin masterworks. Zhang's Curse of the Golden Flower is even slower and more ridiculous. Frankly, not even Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li, two of the world's most impressive actors, can inject any dazzle into this dud.
Chow plays the Emperor, circa the tenth century, who arrives home just before the start of a big annual festival. All manner of intrigue abounds; the Emperor is slowly poisoning the Empress, and she is secretly sleeping with her stepson, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye). Wan is in love with Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the Imperial Doctor (Ni Dahong), who is in charge of slipping the poison to the Empress. The Emperor and the Empress have two sons of their own, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), who dotes on his mother, and the younger Prince Yu (Qin Junjie).
The festival is the turning point for everything; everyone has a secret plan that will unfurl. Instead, Zhang treats us to endless, soulless and completely un-thrilling battle sequences made up of faceless CGI figures hurling thousands of spears over a wall. Lots of people die, and lots of blood spills, but the minutes do not tick by any faster.
The main problem here is that Zhang is a staid director, best known for his use of colors, and more suited to still, quiet images than to action. Hero was divided up into neat, color-coded set pieces that worked beautifully, but Curse of the Golden Flower is confusing sludge. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Curse of the Golden Flower is based on a play (by Cao Yu), and Zhang has decided to remain slavishly devoted to its pages rather than having a bit of fun. It's like a droning, extended Hamlet, when it could have had a bit of bounce.Thus, history repeats itself: What started decades ago like a fight song has now turned into a dirge.