When Zhang Yimou's Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles was released this summer, you could practically hear the sigh of relief from cinephiles like myself: at last, "our" Zhang was back, the Zhang who made tiny small scale dramas of domesticity and relative intimacy, the Zhang seemingly in abeyance after a brace of colossal wuxia epics. So, of course, his follow-up film turns out to be an epic.

What's striking about Curse of the Golden Flower, however, is that it successfully avoids the trap of both Hero and House of Flying Daggers, being lovely to look at and dramatically inert. Make no mistake, the cinematography in Curse, by Zhao Xiaoding, is very lovely indeed; it's just that I was able to walk of the theater this time with a feeling that I had seen something more substantial than just an explosion of well-choreographed colors. While Hero and House of Flying Daggers are primarily martial arts epics, Curse of the Golden Flower is primarily a Zhang Yimou film, one that just happens to involve vast armies and action setpieces.

The story, for all its complexity and palace intrigue, is essentially reducible to a soap opera about family discord (in fact, I was rather pleasantly reminded of Kurosawa's Ran, which also treats an epic tableau as ultimately just the background for a domestic drama): the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) has secretly arranged to poison his wife (Gong Li), who retaliates by grooming her eldest son Jie (Jay Chou), the second of three princes; meanwhile, the crown prince Xiang (Liu Ye) is sleeping with the daughter (Li Man) of the court doctor (Ni Dahong), while she poisons the emperor, the stepmother with whom the prince has had sexual relations in the past.

You don't need me to point out that unlike e.g. Raise the Red Lantern, there's nothing even slightly "realistic" about any of these goings-on, but there's not a hell of a lot in Macbeth or Richard III that passes much of a logic test either. What matters is that given their operatic surroundings, the characters still ring true as recognizable humans. As with any opera, the elevation makes the emotional core of things bigger and more powerful, and if you feel a little bit overwhelmed by everything, well, that just means that it's working. What Zhang has done is to construct a ludicrously baroque machine, with every single cog and gear in place before the film starts, and then inviting us to watch what happens when he starts it. The machine can only work if each character behaves precisely as the person that they are, and this is the joy of the film: characters who are in complete control of their destiny being destroyed by Fate, simply because they refuse to change themselves.

With all that plot going on, there's not a whole lot of space for fight sequences, but this is recognizable wuxia. The reason it works where Zhang's previous forays into the genre really don't is that for the first time, the director is using the rules to his advantage, rather than treating them like a straight jacket. We recognize that wuxia is fantastic, and he uses this essentially as an excuse for his convoluted story: it has a heightened tone to match the genre, if you will. "Getting away with it" in genre films is a long a glorious tradition stretching across the whole of cinema, from character studies to political satire, and it's always a privilege to see it done well.

Of course, there are battle scenes, and they are well-executed, but they are not particularly imaginative, and they don't violate reality too much (i.e. nobody is fighting on a floating whirlwind of leaves). I am torn on this. Seeing a brilliant fight scene is a pleasure in and of itself, whether it has a good script backing it up or not, and I'm a bit disappointed that Zhang's story took up so much energy that could be put to slightly fuller passages with the silent rappelling assassins. For example.

The film's construction largely takes the cue of its heightened melodramatic story: the colors are lurid, the designs of every article of clothing and every wall hanging and every rug are relentlessly Byzantine, and the acting...the acting is fantastic, but it's so extremely stylized that it veers towards off-putting. Not so in the case of the film's de facto lead, Gong Li, though. Ah, Gong Li! I often find myself thinking that she would be a great silent film actress: she is beautiful, and communicates volumes with her facial expressions, but I often find her recitative somewhat unmemorable. It only takes a role like this, which by all appearance was tailor-made, to remind me of just what she is capable of. Admittedly, it's a role suited to her limitations, but she can do Icy Imperious Bitch like nobody's business - it's evocative of her Memoirs of a Geisha performance, without the concomitant language problem, and it's unforgettable. The rest of the cast largely succeeds at acting "big," except surprisingly for Chow Yun-Fat, who kind of mumbles through most of his performance and generally looks uncomfortable wearing a big golden suit of armor. Indeed, he seems to give the film's only "real" performance, and while it works at the end - there's a scene that is far more disturbing thanks to his general flatness - he's missing the point and frankly, the fun. This is a great mad Tennessee Williams/Shakespearean style melodrama, and chewing the scenery is a positive virtue here.

So actually, it's not really a Zhang Yimou film at all, but it's a hell of a lot of fun.