Jerry Springer Combatants
"Family quarrels are bitter things. They don't go according to any rules. They're not like aches or wounds; they're more like splits in the skin that won't heal because there's not enough material." F. Scott Fitzgerald
If you want a cinematic definition of "melodrama," then use Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou's colorful family drama dominated by the color of red blood, heavily influenced by Shakespeare's tragedies such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello, and decidedly over-the-top with incest and revenge.
Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat) is slowly poisoning Empress Phoenix (Gong Li), who is having an affair with her stepson, Prince Jie (Jay Chou). And that's for starters because real incest rears an ugly head while the children struggle over the issue of who will become the heir. The emphasis on family politics takes the usually visual director into a soap opera world where just keeping track of the miscreants takes emphasis away from his usual flourishes with gymnastic fighting and unforgettable costuming.
To put it in perspective, Yimou is far superior to Shakespeare in staging, but centuries apart when it comes to character and dialogue, where the Bard has no equal, although he might have admired Yimou's ability to sustain an audience with little dialogue and a high degree of fancy. If you expect Crouching Tiger aerial acrobatics, there's some, but little by comparison in the drama-driven Curse. It lacks the verbal athleticism of Shakespeare's tragedies, relying as it does on operatic flourishes of emotion and second-rate TV afternoon theatrics that rely on sustained shots of actors frozen in mechanical response until after the commercial. Or maybe even Jerry Springer combatants sparring.
Because it's been more than a decade since Yimou worked with his former lover Gong Li, Asian cinema aficionados will welcome the reunion. Unfortunately the director allows her to overact in too many scenes. However, her passion for her stepson, dolt that he is, is never established, just claimed, so in the moments they are together, it is much easier to see them as mother and son, not lovers. Chow Yun-Fat has a curious role that allows him to be mean-spirited without being hated by the audience, a change for him from the one-dimensional benign heroes he usually plays.
Curse of the Yellow Flower is a melodramatic spectacle to be enjoyed for its grand colors, grand armies, and grand emotions. Leave the rest to Bill Shakespeare.