by Ted S. McGregor JR. & r & & r & Curse of the Golden Flower & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & ver since 2002's Hero, when legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou went all Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, people have come to expect lots of martial arts in his films. But Curse of the Golden Flower is different: If you're after those carefully choreographed, ritualistic fights, rent House of Flying Daggers. Though it has some unforgettable action sequences that are shimmering with color and beautifully photographed -- you'll get your money's worth out of that HD TV you just bought -- Golden Flower is primarily a family drama.
Chow Yun Fat brings his gravitas to the role of Emperor Ping, who ruled near the end of the flamboyant Tang Dynasty (around 930), just before a long period of foreign rule. Starting out as a military officer, Ping gained the throne through military might and marriage to the daughter (Gong Li) of another powerful ruler. But they're as dysfunctional as anything on Dallas. Dad's a harsh authoritarian; Mom lives in a drug-fueled haze, embroidering golden chrysanthemums as fast as she can. Crown Prince Wan is an ineffectual fop with a dirty little secret, and his brother Jai has been off fighting his father's battles for years.
So behind all the beauty of the palace is rot. Appearances matter more than truth, however, and after a spectacular battle (in which those golden flowers pop up), the carnage is cleaned up and the fa & ccedil;ade of beauty is restored. After all the machinations inside the royal court, however, the family cannot be so easily saved.
Hero -- a great film -- can be viewed as the first half of Curse of the Golden Flower. As Hero ends (around 221 BCE), the beginning of the unification of China starts; as Curse of the Golden Flower ends, the decay of that era is setting in. Chinese audiences, again united and very powerful, may learn that the reason their nation fell more than a millennium ago was because power for its own sake, as embodied in Emperor Ping, replaced the love of family as a guiding principle. But for the rest of us, Golden Flower is really pretty to watch. (Rated R)