Bits & Pieces is a new series that will focus on overlooked technical and cultural accomplishments in under-seen films.
Production Design, “The Curse of the Golden Flower”
Production Designer – Huo Tingxiao
Art Director – Zhao Bin
Costume Design – Yee Chung Man
by Vanessa Tottle and Gabriel D. Valdez
Upon its release in 2006, The Curse of the Golden Flower was the most expensive Chinese film ever made. Director Zhang Yimou, who began his career making sensitive dramas, was coming off two martial arts epics (Hero and The House of Flying Daggers) that had proved so successful they’d even garnered multiplex screens in the United States.
The Curse of the Golden Flower is an adaptation of Thunderstorm, a Chinese play published in 1934. Its closest Western comparison would be The Lion in Winter. Both concern a royal family’s internecine conflict, centering around a mother and father on the verge of war and the three sons vying for their affections and inheritance of the kingdom.
The plot is complex and seedy – it involves poison, insanity, assassination, and secret lovers. Chow Yun-fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Gong Li (Farewell My Concubine), often regarded as China’s best actors of their generation, star as the Emperor Ping and Empress Phoenix.
Most importantly, Golden Flower is among the most beautiful films ever created. The costume and set design are a synaesthetic’s dream come true.
The film’s accomplishment is in Zhang’s use of set design to translate opposing themes. The movie’s central sequence, for instance, involves one army massacring another in the Emperor’s expansive courtyard, filled with pots of golden flowers for the annual Chong Yang Festival. Bodies are clearly shown piled up, the courtyard a mess of blood and debris. With the manpower at the palace’s disposal, however, it’s the work of a few hours to clean up the bodies, replant the flowerpots in perfect lines, and carry on with the festival on schedule, pretending nothing had ever happened. All evidence has simply vanished.
To Chinese authorities, who had the ability to censor the film if they saw something they didn’t like, it was a moment that spoke to the power and importance of unity. The replanting of the flowerpots represents the country’s ability to continue on unscathed. Despite a long history of war and suffering at the hands of neighbors and Western powers, the sequence hints that China is an idea continually reborn, always meant to be. To enough of the authorities, the flowerpot sequence symbolizes China’s strength, destiny, and resiliency while glorifying its sheer manpower.
To Western audiences and many Chinese viewers, the moment spoke to the dangers of empire and censorship. The same sequence is a stark and shocking reminder about the dangers of centralized power and how easily voices of criticism are erased from history. The notion of a massacre so quickly covered up is something viewers idealistically (if not always practically) oppose. To many audiences, the flowerpot sequence calls out and criticizes Chinese decisions to jail opposing voices and make political opponents vanish.
In fact, the entire movie is shaped in metaphors that simultaneously criticize the very same power structure they reassure. The victor feels inevitable the entire film. Some audiences interpreted this as a show of strength, while others interpreted it as the inevitable horror of politics, an echo of imperialism in the modern state of things.
The original play, Thunderstorm, is about how wealth and class shame corrupt a successful Chinese family. It’s needless to say why it’s considered a classic in a country that is, at least in name, Communist. Zhang’s period approach to this story keeps this theme intact. For all surface intent, the story is about the futility and tragedy of rebelling against the norm. Throughout, however, Zhang’s design team undercuts and turns this message on its head. Rebellion may be tragic, but its act in Golden Flower takes everything meaningful away from the ruling class. It poses a China bitterly divided between an upper-class government rejoicing at the spectacle of its own power and a poisoned, strong-armed culture struggling to take charge of its fate. In the end, Golden Flower suggests this leads to mutually assured destruction.
For this alone, The Curse of the Golden Flower is a unique accomplishment in cinematic history. It’s overlooked as one of the best films of the last decade and is overshadowed – popularly and critically – in Zhang’s own canon by the stunning martial arts sequences of Hero and the operatic sensibilities of The House of Flying Daggers. Golden Flower may have some martial arts sequences, but it’s really a talky drama. In the West, we’re not used to devoting our viewing time to Eastern drama.
Golden Flower is a more valuable film than either of those others. It creates one of the most overwhelming senses of place seen in cinema. The images posted here are beautiful, but they have nothing on the film in motion.
In his earlier Hero, Zhang ends the movie with a character sacrificing himself for the unity of China. The sacrifice made censors happy, while it played as a tragic and disagreeable decision to audiences. It forced viewers to question whether the individual sacrifice, a fundamental concept of China’s Communism, was truly worth it. In Golden Flower, Zhang found a way to amplify that feeling, to make an entire film out of a Chinese classic that expands that bittersweet moment of doubt into a haunting, lingering thought that follows you out of the theater.
And they slipped it all past the censors. This is what a good design team can do.