We’ve all seen actors chew the scenery, but it’s not often that the sets themselves look good enough to eat. In Curse of the Golden Flower, the latest exercise in tearoom psychedelia from director Zhang Yimou, a family of 10th-century Chinese royals — an emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) with too firm a grip on power, his scheming, neurasthenic empress (Gong Li), and their three ineffectual princes — spend much of the time walking, with vigorous purpose, through a winding maze of palatial corridors that looks as if it was made out of gold-leaf gingerbread, with occasional swirls of blue and pink NASCAR spray paint. The gorgeously gaudy sets are extraordinary, but it takes a while to realize you’re watching a medieval Chinese Dallas with more decor and less juice.
Curse of the Golden Flower is a watchable soap opera, but its marching-band martial-arts scenes are little more than weakly staged retreads of the ones in Zhang’s Hero. The filmmaker, whose shift from humanistic dramas like the splendid To Live to Colorform action spectaculars like Hero and House of Flying Daggers was his response to a government crackdown, may be the modern counterpart to Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer who spent decades trying to write music that placated the Soviet government. Curse of the Golden Flower is the first movie to indicate that Zhang is growing bored with the strategy.