Raz and I moved hell and high water last night to get to an 11:30 showing of Pan's Labyrinth. It was sold out, so we went through the list of movies playing at the AMC 25, figuring that they had to have something that looked interesting and started soon. We ended up seeing The Curse of the Golden Flower instead.
The film is something of a return to form for Zhang Yimou combined with the epic scope of his more recent work. Don't be fooled by the trailers, TV spots and posters, this is not an action film. It is a story of political intrigue, based on a Yu Cao play that is set in the Tang Dynasty. Yes, there is a battle at the end, but most of the movie is about the relationships and machinations of the Royal family. And in the best Shakespearean tradition, everybody has to do things the hard way.
I have to admit that while I never developed any warm fuzzies for the characters (which is good, because the Cao's play is analogous to Shakespeare in more ways than one), I found myself drawn into their plotting and mooning, with each new dirty revelation a nice twist on what came before. Nobody is purely in the right within the family, but players are compelled to pick sides, which means that there isn't really a "cause" for the audience to get behind, meaning they have to make their own decisions. Yes, it is a bit forced, but the performances work very well, and if the end is unsatisfying it was at least an interesting journey to get there.
But it isn't the acting, or even the action, that is what makes this film worth seeing on the big screen if you can.
Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat are good, to be sure, but the real star of this film is Yimou's striking visual style, more prominent and stylized here than it was even in Hero, if such a thing is imaginable. Every part of Xiaoding Zhao's 'scope frame explodes with sumptuous detail, tricks of light, splashes of color. The film looks spectacular, with breathtaking Tingxiao Huo production design, and the sound mix is very enveloping, drawing the viewer into this lush environment, with its etched columns, translucent surfaces and soft, carpeted floors - as the servants walk by chanting the hour of the day. Shigeru Umebayashi's score is quite engaging as well. The total effect is almost psychedelic. No, scratch that. The effect is psychedelic.
I have some reservations as to how well the drama plays out in the film, but I have to say that the brilliance with which it creates its setting and the cinematic splendor on display make it worth dealing with the film's deficiencies.