What, exactly, is Zhang Yimou trying to tell us? After years of making films about intimate oppressions that frequently got him in trouble with Chinese censors (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern), in 2002 Zhang made Hero, a dazzling wire-fu epic that was also an appalling paean to authoritarianism and the "One China" policy of subjugating Tibet and Taiwan. The film was widely seen as a temporary capitulation, a way to get the government off his back once and for all. And indeed, his next epic, House of Flying Daggers, eschewed such politicking, even making the (implicit) point that the loves and betrayals of individuals are of greater importance than the clash of imperial armies.
And yet, here we are again. Zhang's latest film, Curse of the Golden Flower (now out on DVD), does not kowtow to tyranny as explicitly as Hero, but the similarities are difficult to miss: another murderous emperor, another rebellious hero, another devious conspiracy--and another concluding moral that is, at best, morally dubious.
Perhaps in part because he recognizes his story's dark message, Zhang spends most of the film steeping us in actual colors so preternaturally vivid that one may be inclined to turn down the brightness on the TV. Zhang has always used color to dazzling effect (the bolts of dyed cloth unrolling from the sky in Ju Dou, for instance, or the blood-red leaves that whirl around the combatants in Hero), but here it is an experience bordering on ocular assault. The primary setting is an imperial palace in 928 A.D., a city-sized dwelling constructed largely of Chinese art glass--lemony yellows, watermelon pinks, candy-apple crimsons. If the set designers are to be believed, being a royal in the Tang dynasty was a lot like living inside a bag of Jolly Ranchers.