AN EPIC STORYTELLER
DIRECTOR ZHANG YIMOU ON HIS CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER
This holiday season brings many films to choose from, and nothing arrives so beautifully packaged and as gorgeously visual than the new film Curse of the Golden Flower from master filmmaker Zhang Yimou. Boasting a cast of hundreds, sets dripping in gold, breathtaking battle scenes, outstanding performances from two acting legends, and a story that is straight out of Shakespeare, this film is guaranteed to more than satisfy the Yimou faithful and will certainly engage newfound fans.
Entertainment Today: Where did you get the idea for the film?
Zhang Yimou: Curse of the Golden Flower is based on the stage drama called Thunderstorm—one the most famous works from a contemporary canon of modern Chinese dramatic text. It is written by Tsao Yu and set in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and is a key work in modern China. It is so important, that students of dramatic art in China are trained with this. It is a story about the way people are twisted and pushed, and they struggle to survive under the feudal system in China. It has very strong characterizations and very powerful characters. I thought it would be interesting to take this very modern play and transpose it to pre-modern China. So I set the film in the Tang Dynasty—not just any dynasty, but the most glorious and colorful and splendid place—where all this external beauty is heightened. This would be the ultimate juxtaposition of this dark portrait of humanity that the stage play unveils.
ET: Could you speak about your casting process, especially in light of your acquisition of modern screen legends Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li?
ZY: So, when I started to cast, and I was thinking about who should I cast as the Emperor and the Empress in this film, it was really quite clear that there were two people that were suitable for these roles, and that was Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li—who are without question two of the greatest contemporary Chinese actors working today. They both have incredible power and very strong acting abilities and very rich experience. I really could not think of anyone else I would rather have do these roles than the two of them. I was very lucky that when I called them, they both agreed to participate in this production and then, we had our two leads. For the other characters in the film, it was a little more difficult because we needed actors with a lot of stage experience and very well versed in dramatic art as it is adapted from the play.
ET: The film is so stunningly beautiful and rich with color and visuals, even more powerful than your previous films. What was your vision and thought process in your construction of the film’s visual universe?
ZY: Color is indeed important in the scope of this film—especially gold colors and jade colors, and you see them very prominently displayed throughout the visual scheme of the work. This really comes from a saying we have in China where gold and jade adorn the outside, while the inside is dark and rotting. That was the kind of theme that we really wanted to emphasize here—that although you have this very splendid exterior packaging, what is going on inside is very different and very dark. We spent about four to five months experimenting with different [materials] that could be less expensive and that could capture [this] type of opulent feeling. In the end, we used that as well to heighten this splendid beautiful feeling of the Tang Dynasty, and color is not just for show. It’s really a theme of the work and it emphasizes this very strong discord between form and content and between the darkness of the family and between this beautiful glitter that is all adorning the outside. It really heightens the tragic feeling of the story and of these characters.
ET: The sets and locations were all so lush and the battle scenes were amazing. Were these sets built specific for the film or did these already exist? Were computer graphics (CG) used for the film at all, or was that a cast of thousands we see on screen?
ZY: The exteriors are all real locations. The palace that you see in the film is actually a “set” palace. It was built several years ago. This palace was under construction during the filming of Hero. It was supposed to be from some other film, but I don’t know what film was going to use it. In the end, we finished the screenplay for Curse, and we thought, “Let’s use this place.” The interiors were shot in a studio in Beijing, and we tried to make everything look as real as possible. One place we did use CG was in some of the battle sequences. We had 800 to 1,000 extras. These were actual soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army that were working for us as extras. And in some of the scenes, we actually needed more people. So, there are a few scenes that we used CG technology to kind of duplicate people to make it look like there were more people in certain scenes. But, we were very reserved in the way in which we did this. Most of what you see are real people and real battle sequences.
ET: Is there a correlation between this film and your recent films, Hero and House of Flying Daggers?
ZY: I think the major difference between these sets of films, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, is that they are really in the tradition of traditional martial arts chivalry films, and they very much follow that tradition. This film, Curse of the Golden Flower, however, is quite different because it is more an amalgamation of a melodrama and an action film. And that was something that I very consciously wanted to do.