HERE'S A SIMPLE LITMUS TEST to determine whether or not you'll enjoy Curse of the Golden Flower: Two Chinese men are engaged in a friendly but fierce sword-fighting competition (to measure their honor and respect, not to kill each other, of course). When the warriors' swords glint off their candy-colored body armor, tiny sparks shoot off like comets, and it sounds like two Buicks sideswiping each other at 10 mph. After several minutes of impossibly high vertical leaps and fancy handiwork that would make Cocktail-era Tom Cruise proud, one warrior finally bests the other, and the loser is knocked off his feet, flips four times horizontally in the air (in slow mo, natch), and hits the floor with the thunder of a fallen oak tree. Do you (A) have a slight erection from fantasizing about Chow Yun-Fat whipping such choreographed ass, or (B) does this sound like every other boring-but-pretty kung fu movie since Crouching Tiger? Ether way, the rest of this review will probably only confirm your preexisting hunches.
The Curse of the Golden Flower's plot is as laborious and stiff as director Zhang Yimou's previous features, Hero and House of Flying Daggers: characters are dishonored, characters suffer shame, characters forget how to use pronouns. This one involves the royal family in the Tang Dynasty, and features astoundingly gorgeous costumes and sets to accompany the laughably humorless acting and storyline.
None of this matters too much, though, because about one hour in, Curse of the Golden Flower starts in with some ass-kicking of the highest order. Ninjas swoop down ziplines with crazy Wu-Tang weapons (I know ninjas are Japanese, but they were wearing all black and being wicked, so give me a break), armies invade palaces, dudes scale insanely high walls—you know the drill.
It's hard to dislike a movie as fist-pumping and ass-kicking as the second half of Golden Flower. But does anybody else remember when kung fu movies didn't try so hard to be smart? If I wanted brainy, I'd watch Ingmar Bergman.