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MAGNIFICENT `GOLDEN FLOWER' SERVES UP A VISUAL FEAST.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

Gorgeous, breathtakingly choreographed and as awesomely scaled as any movie that's ever come out of China (and that means BIG), ``Curse of the Golden Flower's'' artistry is matched only by its hysterical pitch.

This is one spectacular historical potboiler, Shakespeare and soap opera in about equal measure.

It's got flying ninjas and battles that not only fill the length of a widescreen frame with colorfully armored warriors but sometimes stack 'em from the bottom up to the top, too.

And with cleavage that only the finest engineering minds in human history could have created. Amazingly enough, the guys who came up with this method (and, surely, it had to have been guys) lived way back in the 10th century.

I've been told that the film's voluptuous costuming is recognizably accurate from the short-lived Later Tang Dynasty (923-936). I'd wager that everybody's walking fantasy garb may be the only element in this deliriously nutty movie that's realistic. In fact, the story is adapted from a play set in the 1930s. Don't ask me how director Zhang Yimou (``Hero,'' ``House of Flying Daggers'') and co-scenarists Wu Nan and Bian Zhihong turned that into a tale of palace intrigue and imperial power plays. But then, Zhang's the kind of filmmaker who regularly pulls off the seemingly impossible, and he does it in all kinds of other ways here.

Reuniting after many years with Gong Li, the star of his early, more realistic masterpieces (``Ju Dou,'' ``Raise the Red Lantern,'' etc.), Zhang goes for formal as well as emotional and fleshly sumptuosity in every frame. The ornate emperor's palace is flecked with gold detailing and glowing Chinese art glass, every meal is a banquet, and the title chrysanthemum petals turn vast courtyards into oceans of yellow.

Inside this gilded mega-cage, the emperor (Chow Yun Fat) is slowly poisoning the empress (Gong) -- not to death, but into a state of mental decrepitude. He's either doing this for political purposes or because he's gotten wind that she's having an affair with the crown prince (Liu Ye), his son from a mysterious earlier liaison. Or both.

The couple's eldest, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), vows to save his mom from his dad, while servile youngest Prince Yu's (Qin Junjie) true loyalties are hard to locate. And, just for fun, there are many other jealousies, betrayals and even a wackazoid unsuspecting incest angle reverberating through the palace and beyond.

All this leads to plotting and counterplotting so complicated that you need a flow chart just to keep track of who's out to get whom -- and why. Anyway, the result is a lot of acrobatic ninja ambushes (and I know, ninjas are Japanese; Zhang says he just made up these Sino-equivalents because they looked so cool on action director Tony Ching Siu Tung's elaborately strung wires), troop movements that dwarf Kurosawa's grandest dreams, and personal brutality of a singularly appalling nature because, you know, it's between family.

And most of it is acted on the teetering precipice of a nervous breakdown. ``Curse of the Golden Flower'' is more spectacular than Zhang's other two, very impressive martial arts epics, but it's quite further out of its mind, too. The overheated nature of so much of it might understandably turn off some viewers. But the production is so grandly satisfying that even when you're laughing at the screen (I suspect that Zhang and company are often tittering along as well), you still can't help but be blown away by the stunning excess of it all.

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss@dailynews.com

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER - Three stars

(R: violence, sex, language)

Starring: Gong Li, Chow Yun Fat, Jay Chou.

Director: Zhang Yimou.

Running time: 1 hr. 54 min.

Playing: Pacific Galleria Stadium 16, Sherman Oaks; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Edwards Renaissance Stadium 14, Alhambra; Pacific ArcLight, Hollywood; Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; Edwards University Town Center 6, Irvine.

In a nutshell: Deliriously melodramatic, baroquely designed and massively staged epic about court intrigue in 10th-century China. In Mandarin with English subtitles.

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

Her affair with the crown prince results in the Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) being poisoned by the emperor in the lavishly costumed ``Curse of the Golden Flower.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 22, 2006
Words:706
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