‘Curse of the Golden Flower’ continues the epic wuxia cycle upon which Fifth Generation leading light Zhang Yimou unexpectedly embarked with 2003’s ‘Hero’ and its follow-up, ‘House of Flying Daggers’. The films share plots of constantly modulating intrigue, sumptuous period detail, hyperkinetic camerawork and grand-scale, CGI-enhanced combat but their breathless, saturated expressionism has yielded diminishing returns. ‘Curse…’ will give devotees of ‘Hero’ and ‘House… their money’s worth, but is too messy and highly strung to wholly transport.
The film’s first half is all palace plotting, in both narrative and conspiratorial senses, with over-complex twists and turns mirrored in the finely captured, often lavishly gaudy minutiae of decor and decorum on which the tenth-century royal residence runs. And once the action kicks in, Zhang co-ordinates some bravura sequences, including an airborne ninja squadron’s descent on a mounted group of fugitives. But there’s a hysteria to the central performances and a gigantism to the pitched battles that leaves little space for emotional engagement. The result is something like ‘Desperate Housewives’ of the Forbidden City.