Near the end of the Tang Dynasty in 10th century China things are not well between the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) and his Empress (Gong Li). She serves more as an arm piece to him and begins to suspect that he is poisoning her to keep her subservient. The Emperor brings his son Prince Jai (Jay Chou) to the palace and Jai is concerned for the Empress's health. She also seems to have some sort of hold on her stepson Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye) who just wants to run away with the palace doctor's daughter Chan (Li Man). With all the scheming and ulterior motives going back and forth it all hits the fan when the Emperor's convoy is attacked by assassins. From here secrets come to light through death and battle as the assassins force both sides' hands. The family relations and dynasty lore may be too complicated to understand in one viewing but that is often the case with these kinds of historical epics especially in a foreign language. Still the elements are beautiful to watch and once it becomes a war movie the threat of boredom is lifted. Curse of the Golden Flower offers traditional epic performances. Gong Li’s Empress may be bitter in servitude angry in conspiracy or pained with tragedy but it's all big dramatics. Few can do it better than Gong. The lavish emotional material is her forte and this is another tragic epic in which she can shine. Chow Yun-Fat does his stoic thing. What makes him the ultimate badass action hero also suits him well as a plotting monarch. Some range of issues face his character but he greets them with a strong even-keeled temper only breaking down in pivotal moments. The assassins serve as a singular character too. They move so gracefully as a single unit you don't even need to see who's under the masks to get the personality of this unstoppable killing machine. Other characters just serve as pawns in the plot. There's the whiny sissy son and lovelorn kids all convincing as they serve their purposes in Gong and Chow's chess game. Curse of the Golden Flower seems to be a culmination of all of director Zhang Yimou's work. It includes period drama with epic tragic themes and even more newfangled martial arts action since his last effort Hero. He also uses color schemes to reflect emotion. Superficial gold barely masks the palace corruption and forest greens welcome in the change brought by the assassins. Golden Flower does seems a tad melodramatic. But the Chinese language is based on subtle sound differences and going over the top may be the only way to convey it. It certainly works for a political intrigue family drama. The best parts of the film are the assassin attacks big but full of nuance. The dark figures flow gracefully through the scenes seeming to defy gravity but not in a Crouching Tiger sort of way. Their acrobatic antics are based on some level of physics at least as the film establishes the group. It's never just clanking swords there's always some careful tactics to enjoy. Combining so many aspects masterfully Curse of the Golden Flower could be Zhang's masterwork.
The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.