Curse of the Golden Flower/ Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (2006), Zhang Yimou

July 20, 2008 at 3:27 am

Based on a classical Chinese play and set around the end of the Tang Dynasty of 10th century AD, Curse of the Golden Flower is the most lavish of Zhang Yimou’s costume epics, featuring more than 1000 extras along the world’s most bankable Chinese-language stars (Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li), extensive battle scenes and superbly elaborate sets and costumes. It is the film that comes the closest to the Western concept of an epic film in that it places large-scale historical movements in direct relation to the intrigues and the intricate relations of the royal court, and in that its plot is most directly reminiscent to a classical Western-style tragedy. With the density of emotion and feeling confined within the closed world of the family, the story is reminiscent to ancient Greek dramas, or it can be directly compared to Shakespearian tragic plots.

And indeed, in an interview at the film’s world premiere (notably taking place as part of the AFI fest in Hollywood), actor Chow Yun Fat articulates clearly that the film’s team were conscious of how close this film is to classical Western narratives, by comparing it to tragedies like King Lear and Hamlet.

In this reportage realized by Asia Pacific Arts (with the reporter making the remark that the premiere does not seem to have received much coverage from the mainstream networks), director Zhang Yimou is seen claiming that the absence of China-specific historical and cultural background knowledge should not impede the Western viewers’ reception, as they will undoubtedly be able to appreciate the epic tale simply as a profound human drama.

The utterings made in the context of this reportage are really noteworthy in that they reveal important aspects of the dynamics of transnational considerations in filmmaking: clearly, the film was pitched to investors as a project of great commercial potential precisely because of its dramatic/tragic plot (comparable to the very popular Shakespeare) that would make the culturally specific background irrelevant and thus supply it with the cross-over potential for a commercially successful project.

According to the (incomplete) data made available at Box Office Mojo, the film’s worldwide gross was $78,568,977. US domestic revenues are about 8.4% ($6,566,773) while the international ones account for an even bigger proportion of 91.6% ($72,002,204). Handled by Sony Classics, the film had a run of about 14 weeks, between January and March 2007, reaching its widest US release at 1,234 screens. Internationally it has played in theatrical distribution across 35 or so territories, in North and South America, Asia and Europe. About a dozen or so companies were involved in the film’s international distribution, half of which are overseas arms of Hollywood players such as Buena Vista International (Singapore) or Columbia TriStar (Argentina).

The revenues from the film look good, but this changes as soon as one realizes that the budget of Curse of the Golden Flower is actually at about 50% higher than that of Hero (at the time the most expensive Chinese film). Hero was made for about $30 million, whereas the estimated budget for Curse of the Golden Flower is $45 million. Thus the revenues that the film has realized, less than 200% cannot really compare with the 600% that the two other previous epics of Zhang Yimou brought in.

Like the previous two epics, the credits for the sound effects and the visual/CGI departments are heavily populated by Western names of professionals belonging to the growing class of transnational specialists working in these industries.

What I find particularly striking in the case of Curse of the Golden Flower is that while being the film that comes the closest to what a Western costume epic is like in plot and style, this is also the film that is least commercially successful of the three. Is this indicative of a wider trend when ‘foreign’ epics are concerned? It may well be the case, so this will be a question I will be asking myself in looking at another Chinese epic that did not seem to do very well, either, Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin (1998).

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, The Emperor and the Assassin), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).

© Dina Iordanova
20 July 2008