Following Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou's series of stylised swordplay epics comes to an end in The Curse Of The Golden Flower, a characteristically stunning portrait of family plotting within the tenth century Tang Dynasty. The dynasty's collapse from serenity into bloodshed sidelines Yimou's trademark action sequences in favour of relentless elaborations of sets, costumes and plotting. The result is limited, but a visual experience that few big screen outings could hope to match.
Prince Jai (Jay Chou) returns from battle to join his father the Emperor (a growling Chow-Yun Fat), his Empress step-mother and his brothers for the Chong Yang Festival, an extravaganza of pomp, fireworks and countless golden crysantheums that carpet the Forbidden City's vast courtyards. But all is not well in the royal household: held back from war, Crown Prince Wan has been having an affair with his stepmother, which may or may not be the reason the Emperor is poisoning her medicine. Jai's ambitions also become clearer - and then there's the mystery of what happened to the first prince's birth mother.
Though Gong Li's trapped, venomous Empress dominates the performances, the Forbidden City itself is the star. Its acres of jade, gold and flora teem with armies upon armies of extras - simpering eunuchs, busom-heavy maids, golden-armoured guards - all saturated in colour and detail to within an inch of nausea.
"SOME HUGELY REWARDING MOMENTS"
The plot, too, is overcooked. So much time is spent weaving tapestries of intrigue along those wonderous corridors that what could have been a brutal series of twists are each hopelessly telegraphed. Worse, there are only two real action sequences, bunched at the end of almost two, rather long, hours. Do stay awake for the flying ninjas, though, who are marvellous, while the broad-brush, crushing finale delivers its graceful brutality on a hugely rewarding scale.
Curse Of The Golden Flower is released in UK cinemas on Friday 13th April 2007.