Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Gong Li & Zhang Yimou: Curse of the Golden Flower Review, Q & A

Directed by Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers)Curse of the Golden Flower takes place over 1,000 years in the past, during the rule of China's Later Tang Dynasty. Historically considered to be one of the more ostentatious and capricious regimes, the storyline picks up at the gates of the Imperial Palace, as the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) returns from the battlefront-- where he's been staving off the Mongolian hordes-- under the pretext of celebrating the annual Chong Yang (chrysanthemum) Festival. Soon,however , it's apparent that the relationship between the Emperor and the Empress (Gong Li) is beyond strained and then there's all of the family secrets. It quickly becomes clear that everyone has a skeleton in the closet and there's a byzantine thread of deception and darkness, so pay attention because clues are everywhere-- listen for the Emperor's explanation of the squares in the circles.

In spite of her ailing health, The Empress, the Emperor's second wife, has been involved with her stepson, Prince Wan (Liu Ye), who, in turn has been having trysts with a courtesan himself. As all of this unfolds, Prince Jai, the second son who's been on the frontlines with his father for years is pulled in two directions as riddles unfold and he must decide whether to stay faithful to his mother or to his exalted father-- who's also been brewing plans of his own. Cinematographer Zhao Xiading's eye for shots is crisp and goes beyond the norm and then some as the camera lens captures vivid yellows, reds, blues and greens in palace corridors and culminates at the chrysanthemum festival sequence. The curse of the Golden Flower encapsulates all of the pageantry and flourish of a time that's only been duplicated on silk-screen prints and ancient folklore. To delve any deeper would ruin the viewing experience, so I won't but I will say that director Zhang Yimou keeps things rolling with a couple of wiggy sub-plots and twists-- the Crown Prince's tale is especially esquisite to discover, off-the-chain battle sequences with thousands of armored warriors in the royal courtyard and mysterious ninjas too. Set for release in the US in late December, The Curse of the Golden Flower is a film lover's flick as it is told with both visual and verbal beauty while handily taking the viewer to place that's simultaneously dark yet full of brilliance; unimaginable, yet oh so familiar...

Here's a part of the transcript from the press session with Gong Li and Zhang Yimou (and their interpretors) over at the Regent Beverly Wilshire...

Q: Why did you change the period of the film?

Zhang Yimou: It’s indeed based on a modern drama called Thunderstorm, which is one of the most famous works from the contemporary canon of modern Chinese texts. It’s written by Cao Yu and set in the 1920s and 30s and is a key work in modern China. It’s so important in fact that students of dramatic art in China are actually trained with this. It’s part of their kind of basic repertoire, that they must perform Thunderstorm during their student days. So this is a work that I’ve been long familiar with and it’s so popular it’s performed basically every day in China. If you picked a random day, like today, it’s probably performed in some city in China, you will find a performance of Thunderstorm. And it’s a story about the way that people are twisted and pushed and they struggle to survive under the feudal system in China. And it has very strong characterization of very powerful characters that are featured there and I thought it would be interesting to take this modern play and transpose it to pre-modern China, to the Tong Dynasty, and not just any dynasty, but they most glorious, blended, colorful place where all of this external beauty is heightened, and that would be the ultimate juxtaposition to this dark portrait of humanity that the play is unveiling.

Q: Was the drama hard to maintain?

Gong Li: For me the process was kind of like being in a bullfight where they stick the bull and keep taunting and exciting the bull until he’s just in a frenzy and he’s ready to fight. For me it was like that every day. I’d get all excited and the director, of course, was the bullfighter and I was the bull, to get me really charged up to perform in the play and then after we’d finish it I’d get off work and go home and have a nice sleep and the next day get up and start the whole process over again.

Q: The casting process?

ZY: When I was starting to cast and thinking about who I should cast for the emperor and empress in this film it was really quite clear. There were two people that really were suitable for these roles, and that was Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li, who without question are two of the greatest contemporary Chinese actors working today. They both have incredible power and very strong acting abilities and very rich experience and I really couldn’t think of anyone else I would rather have do these roles other than them. I was very lucky that when I called them they both agreed to participate in this production and so we had our two leads. For the other characters in the film it was a little more difficult because we really needed actors with a lot of stage experience and were very well versed in dramatic art because this is, after all, adapted from a play. So we were looking around for various people and for the third son we cast Jay Chou, who is a pop sensation throughout Asia, he’s from Taiwan. He actually came at the recommendation of my producer and I suspect there was kind of a business strategy there because of the marketability of this young face. He’s truly a young king in the pop world of the entertainment industry. And there was something really wonderful about his performance. There was a simpleness but really a power that comes through in his performance.

Q: How long did it take to get in the costume?

GL: For the whole process every day of getting ready including hair and makeup and costume it took maybe about 3 hours total. By the time I got to the hair stage I finally began to feel ready and like an empress, and the bullfight is ready. By the time we got onto the set with the color scheme and everything is very red and gold and splendid, the bullfight really took off after that.

Q: Importance of color in the film?

ZY: Color is indeed very important in the scope of this film. Especially gold colors and jade colors and you see that very prominently displayed throughout the visual scheme of the work. And this comes from a saying we have in China where gold and jade are on the outside while the inside is dark and rotting. And that’s the theme we really wanted to emphasize here. Although we have this splendid exterior packaging, what’s going on inside is very different and very dark. So to emphasize that we even got this gold color dust from Tibet and from all different places and we used that in the various set designs. We also had these glass handicrafts, which were sometimes in the form of pottery vessels, also you see them in the columns in the palace. And the real version of this glass handiwork is actually very expensive and we couldn’t afford to use the real thing for the whole film so we actually spent about 4-5 months experimenting with different replacements that could be less expensive, but could still capture that opulent feeling. So in the end we used that as well to heighten the splendid and beautiful feeling of the Tong Dynasty. And the color is not just for show, it’s really the theme of the work. It emphasizes this very strong discord between form and content, between the darkness of the family and this beautiful glitter that is all adorning the outside. And I think in the end that really heightens the tragic feeling of the story and of these characters.

Q: Was it a relief to shoot in China after Miami Vice?

GL: Yes, going back to film Curse of the Golden Flower we did it very smoothly and efficiently so it was a very good experience and we were very happy with it. As far as being satisfied, actually I feel a little unsatisfied in Curse of the Golden Flower in my own part in the film. I wish it were longer. I wish they would give me another 20-30 minutes and I could actually do an even better job with the performance.

Q: Were the locations enhanced at all or were they all real?

ZY: The exteriors are all real locations. The palace that you see for most of the film is actually a set palace that was built 7 years ago in the Jo Jung Province(?) in a place called ???. This palace was actually under construction during the filming of Hero. They had already started making it and it was supposedly for some other film, I don’t know which one, but in the end nobody used it because it was too big. And they finished construction on it about two years ago and it was just sitting there because no filmmaker knew what to do with such a massive location. In the end we finished the screenplay for this and we thought we should use this place. So that’s where most of it was shot, or the exteriors anyway. The interiors were shot in a studio in Beijing and we tried to make everything look as realistic as possible and one place we did use CG was in some of the battle sequences. We had between 800 and 1000 extras. These were actual soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army that were actually working for us as extras. And some of the scenes we actually needed more people so there were a couple of scenes where we used CG technology to duplicate people and make them look like there were more people in the scenes, but we were very reserved in the way in which we did this. And there is probably about 12 or maybe 20 shots at the most where we have CG people created in there. Most of them you see are real people and real battle sequences and that’s something I’m actually quite proud of because one of the things I think I do well is taking limited human resources and making them look much bigger, getting more bang for my buck and making them look much more than they really are. That’s something I’ve always prided myself on doing well.

Q: What is the relationship between this film and your older ones, particularly Hero?

ZY: I think the major difference between these sets of films are Hero and House of Flying Daggers are really in the tradition of traditional martial arts films and they very much follow that tradition. This film, however, is quite different because it’s more of an amalgamation of a melodrama and an action film and that’s something I very consciously wanted to do. The plot, the story, the characterization, all of this comes from the original play, Thunderstorm. And with that I was given a wonderful foundation upon which to build on, but then by taking it and setting it during the Tong Dynasty and all of this splendid, opulent set design I really was able to take it somewhere much further. At the same time I wanted to make sure those splendid scenes were always at the service of the screenplay and service of the characterization and we never got lost in the middle. So I think it was an interesting amalgamation of these different genres. One thing that’s really a shame is all the things I had to cut in this film. I shot a lot more of this splendid opulent stuff that I showed you in the film, but precisely because everything I wanted to show you was in service of the story and service of the characterizations, there were certain scenes that just didn’t work with the pacing of the film. For instance we did one scene where we show Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li’s characters getting dressed and you see them putting on all 5 or 6 layers of their clothing one at a time. It’s a beautiful scene and for the first time you get to see what they are wearing underneath all of those layers of clothes, because you often don’t get to see the under layers of clothes, but the thing is it affects the pacing of the film. And my rule is that anything that affects the pacing has just got to go. We have to maintain the integrity of the story.

Q: How many crew and actors did you use?

ZY: The crew, including all the drivers and the cooks, over 200 people. And with all the extras it was well over 1,000...

...Curse of the Golden Flower is in theaters December 29th...


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