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The Curse of the Golden Flower
Zhang Yimou


Lee Jones
posted
26 April 2007

If British audiences still occasionally titter at the unique aesthetic of Chinese martial arts, as warriors fly through the air, they have doubtless at least become accustomed to the ‘anti-imperial’ genre of Chinese cinema, where a revolt against the monarchic order is ultimately crushed. The Curse of the Golden Flower picks up where Zhang’s earlier film, Hero, left off, and while it gamely pushes the genre to its limits, it also reveals its limitations.

The events of the film build up to the Chrysanthemum Festival, where the harmony of China’s Imperial family is to be celebrated as an example to the entire kingdom – but we quickly learn that there is little to celebrate. The Empress has had an affair with her stepson, the crown prince; the Emperor is slowly poisoning her; and she is plotting rebellion. Through a series of intrigues she is able to field an army, commanded by her eldest son, which sweeps into the Imperial Palace on the night before the festival, only to be thwarted by the betrayal of her schemes by the crown prince. After a terrible blood bath that has led many to compare the film to Hamlet, the cruel Emperor sits serenely upon his throne.

As many people became aware with Hero, these labyrinthine plotlines set a millennium ago are allegorical critiques of China’s contemporary political order. The portrayal of rebellions against the ancien régime can be passed off by Chinese Communist Party censors as conforming to the progressive dictates of Communism, while their ultimate failure serves to discourage anyone thinking about rebellion today. They are an essentially safe way of portraying political conflict on the silver screen: order is always restored, and the chaos of the ‘Warring States’ period lurks constantly in the background to warn of the disastrous consequences of disorder. Because of its constraints, there is a limit to the political sentiments that can be expressed in a film taking this form, but Golden Flower pushes the genre about as far as it can go.

The film’s overt critique of Confucius is one of its most original aspects, but it is laid on extremely thickly. One of the early scenes has the Emperor confronting his second son, returning from exile, defeating him in ritual combat, and then reminding him that the order he presides over is immutable: his son can take what he is given, but he may never take it by force. Later, the youngest son explains the Confucian symbolism of the Chrysanthemum Terrace: a square table, representing earth, sits amidst a golden circle, representing heaven; everything is in its place, its order determined, fixed. The Empress is told early on by her step-son that rebellion is futile, that nothing can be changed; ‘I want to try’, she insists.

Why is the critique of Confucius explicit in the Empress’s revolt politically relevant today? Although the CCP is apparently attempting to revive official Marxian doctrine to help re-legitimise its rule, there are clear limits to this – witness the rebellion of stock markets when Wen Jiabao recently promised a further ‘100 years of socialism’, causing the regime to drop plans to tax capital gains. As Daniel Bell points out in his recent book, From Marx to Confucius, China’s elites are relying increasingly on Confucian ideas to bolster the current order. So, an attack on Confucius can be read as an attack on the CCP. But it is another safe attack, given Maoism’s traditional hostility to Confucianism, notably in the ‘Criticise Confucius’ campaign of the 1970s.

The denouement reflects a subtler development of the genre. By the end of the film, the Emperor is still on his throne. But all of his sons lie dead, and his wife will clearly bear him no more. Order is restored; but it can no longer reproduce itself – the imperial line is ended. The film draws to a close with the camera looking down on the symbolic Chrysanthemum Terrace, but its thrones are empty. This is defeat in all but name.

But it is, of course, defeat for both sides – the throne is not occupied by a conquering hero ushering in a new era. Nor is it clear what such a new era would entail. Strikingly, with the exception of a couple of scenes, the entire plot takes place inside the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Despite being able to field armies of thousands of men, the protagonists are members of the same family; the plot is a palace intrigue, not a revolution. The Empress wants her son on the throne, but simply to get rid of the Emperor, not for anything more profound. The elaborate, beautiful ceremonies staged by the imperial family on a daily basis are for their eyes only – the people are physically and politically absent.

The film has been repeatedly criticised for having a lacklustre script and unimpressive characters. This partly misses the point that the whole movie is a gigantic allegory. The strife beneath the glittering exterior of the imperial family is yet another metaphor for the corrupt modern regime, evoking the Chinese proverb ‘gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside’. But such criticism does highlight a weakness imposed by the constraints of the genre. When the people are absent, we are left only with the personal animosities of the protagonists to explain the whole drama. While we can appreciate the metaphorical purpose of the movie, the cinematic success of films in this ‘anti-imperial’ genre will tend to turn heavily on the strength of its characters – in this respect, what Golden Flower gains over Hero in terms of its allegorical sophistication it loses in terms of its characterisation. This ultimately reflects the strict limits of the genre itself: there is only so much clunking metaphor that can be made up for by beautiful scenery and acrobatic martial arts – and, arguably, Hero also scored more highly on aesthetics.

Nonetheless, Golden Flower, wittingly or otherwise, conveys an essential truth about modern Chinese politics. Despite growing dissatisfaction with the regime, expressed in the rising numbers of protests and demonstrations each year, the masses remain broadly politically quiescent, a testament to their depoliticisation under Deng Xiaoping. If any change is going to come, it probably will be the result of internal changes in the CCP – the modern day version of palace intrigue. But so long as the CCP can continue to ride the two horses of nationalism and economic development, there seems little reason to fear internal dissension or the elite’s ability to reproduce itself. The order, it seems, will not be challenged. The fear of the empty throne, and the chaos of fragmentation, will see to that.

 

 
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