Wonder what Hannibal Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) was like as a boy? Well even as a youngster he had a keen interest in (eating) human anatomy but as we see in Hannibal Rising he wasn’t born a cannibal. It all started in World War II Lithuania where a young Hannibal is left an orphan after he watches his whole family die at the hands of war criminals. In the eight years that pass only the hope of revenge has kept him afloat. After escaping the orphanage at which he was bullied Hannibal finds his uncle’s Japenese widow Lady Murasaki (Gong Li) who lives in a similarly lonesome state. They strike up a very close bond in which she helps him tap into the memory of his family’s death--most importantly and painfully his young sister’s--while he more or less let’s her live. Not the case for those who wronged him but hot on Hannibal’s murderous trail is a French inspector (Dominic West) who both sympathizes with and greatly fears the madman-child Lecter. And given that Anthony Hopkins has thrice played a grown-up Hannibal and Brian Cox once everyone should know how this prequel ends. With Anthony Hopkins having lent his unmistakable visage to his now iconic Lecter no actor would be given a fair chance to do the same for a young Hannibal. Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement) often tries his darndest to contort his makeup-scarred face so that it alone will frighten viewers but an actor either looks like a psychopath or doesn’t; Hopkins with the utmost respect looks like a straightjacket escapee whereas Ulliel looks like an over-exerting actor. Forced scowl aside he’s creepy as a near mute in the movie but it’s almost impossible to believe that this is the young man who would go on to become Hopkins’ Lecter. Li (Miami Vice) looks incredible and easily 20 years younger than her actual age. She does what she can with her mysterious and emotionally stunted Lady Murasaki but it’s an odd character to begin with. In a supporting role Englishman West (HBO’s The Wire) adds a needed subtle performance and fits well alongside the past lawmen in the Hannibal series and Rhys Ifans as a villain continues his trend of unpredictable role choices. Hannibal Rising is astonishingly the fifth installment in a franchise that truly lost its luster after Silence of the Lambs and the neglected Manhunter. Of course the franchise is only kaput if the latest doesn’t make enough money but this should have been stopped years ago—at least as a movie series. As novels the saga is much more sustainable because author Thomas Harris who makes his Lecter screenplay debut with Rising can get away with murder (no pun intended). But while Rising is far from over the top director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Harris can’t make the movie nearly as tense as any of its novel or film predecessors. Webber is an editor-turned-director and it shows: The film is masterfully shot by Ben Davis (Layer Cake) and put together by the director but once Webber gets down to the movie’s blood and guts (pun intended this time) he can’t deliver much excitement at all. Ultimately Webber takes his restraint too far.
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.