3 May 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower versus The Banquet

Well, what will it be?
Cinematography genius Zhang Yimou or the new in epic drama, Feng Xiogang.
In their respective film roles, who makes the greatest impact? The long suffering, fiery Gong Li or the icy, calculating Zhang Ziyi?

For me, The Banquet wins hands down. Incidentally, I saw The Banquet last October, in a Beijing cinema with English subtitles. My intertextual experience was enlivened by the fact that no fewer than two hours before, I had been exploring the walls of the Forbidden City and taken in the intrigues of the cunning Empress Cixi. And while The Banquet is not set in the Forbidden City and is evidently not set during the Qing dynasty, you can probably imagine how much awe Tan Dun's music inspired in someone who was already highly intoxicated with the sights of China.

While The Banquet has been criticised for not embodying elements of Chineseness, I want to vouch for its subtlety and its elegant form. Mostly I was impressed by the film's graceful cinematography and its exquisite art direction. Every shot is an artwork all to itself and pays homage to the beautiful natural settings (some scenes were magnificently filmed in the Anji Bamboo forest, Jiangsu province) and even combat scenes evoke some sort of fragile, ethereal dance. The Banquet, with its intriguing and never obvious characters, with its masks, with its play within a play, with its dramatic narrative and unresolved conclusion, evinces the understated Eastern traditions more so than the vibrant and often cacophonic Curse of the Golden Flower. Never mind that The Banquet alludes to Shakespeare's Hamlet and that Tan Dun's score is a perfect synchrony of both Western and Eastern sounds, the Chinese essence remains.

Don't get me wrong, I love Zhang Yimou's work, particularly Ju Dou, Red Sorghum and House of Flying Daggers. But as I watched Gong Li sweat at length over her gilded embroidery and submit to the ridiculous orchestrated ritual of sipping poisoned brew at each count of the astrological hour, I became somewhat unsettled. I felt as if culture was being slapped in my face. The ongoing patriarchal sadism, albeit a testament to Confucian order, often bordered on the burlesque. This excess is further evident in the ostentatious, gold fabrics that are in sharp contrast to the relatively monochrome reds and whites in the Banquet. And it's not just that. Some of the scenes seem to have been especially shot to remind the world of modern China's omnipotence in mass production. Where Zhang Yimou's previous films celebrate China in what has been termed a narcisstic display of peasant songs, national colors and minorities, here, he repeatedly draws on symbols that connote line manufacturing, speed, brutal efficiency and sheer hysteria. The brilliant cinematography has become a tool to illustrate the giant machine that is China. From the rows of concubines, to the myriad of medicinal pots, to the thousands strong army of soldiers, to the mass of yellow flower beds.... Everything is presented as a soulless part, a figurant in some mechanical powerhouse that must at all cost continue to operate, even as blood is spilled, as wilted flowers are sweeped and as poison is ritually served. If that is the so called Chineseness that has allowed Curse of the Golden Flower to make an appearance in the US Academy Awards then it fascinates, more through its fearmongering hysterical images than for its cultural significance. Or it may be that I refuse to admit to this sort of cultural significance, it is much too ugly.

In Curse of the Golden Flower, there is this repeated tendency to semiotically express the obvious about a country. It is almost as if the film assumes that we are ignorant of this, the world's oldest continuous civilisation. For example, a long drawn out scene hints to Chinese medicinal sophistication and makes a redundant effort to assert this glorious culture. Overall, it is the realisation that the film panders both to national narcissism and Western fearmongering that is nauseating. I felt as if Gong Li were not alone and as if I were, myself, enduring the effects of some toxic substance. But this is after all, art.

Both films are works of art, it is true. But if one is deemed more Chinese than the other, it is entirely for the wrong reasons.

Gong Li is my favourite Chinese actress, yet I did not feel as drawn to her, nor did I feel as sympathetic towards her character as I did with Zhang Ziyi's tormented, yet ambitious character. Zhang Ziyi impressed me with her perfect portrayal of self-preserving inscrutability, her character's sudden physical outbursts and jealous passions. She was a nymph transformed into a vampire cat and yet, I still sympathised. Just as he did in his earlier film, Ju Dou, Zhang Yimou appears to martyrise Gong Li in Curse of the Golden Flower. Yet she was more credible an actress, at the hands of her brutal husband in Ju Dou and even there, her caustic vengeance was more engaging than in this later film. In Curse of the Golden Flower, I was confused and emotionally removed as I watched the poisoned empress needling away through some obscure stratagems, in a futile attempt to avenge herself.

Finally, the buzz around Curse of the Golden Flower too painfully reminds me of themes raised by Edward Said in his Orientalism discourse. One has only to observe the overdone veil of mystery and intrigue surrounding this film. There is this eagerness to target an audience with elusiveness, dark plots, with promises of secrets and foreign mysteries all dramatically revealed within the walls of the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City? To begin, Curse of the Golden Flower is set during the Tang dynasty where the seat of the throne was Xi'an not Beijing. In fact the Beijing Forbidden City we know today was only constructed much later, during the early Ming dynasty. So the fact that Curse was adeptly filmed on the grounds of the Forbidden City is perhaps a curiosity in itself but is irrelevant to the historical setting. I feel that too much smoke has been used to draw audiences.

Both films are a great experience to watch but my preference is with The Banquet.

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