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Film / Curse of the Golden Flower

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A 2006 Chinese film directed by Zhang Yimou, Curse of the Golden Flower follows the imperial family in the Forbidden City and the various wheels within wheels they have going against each other.

Near the end of the Tang dynasty, The Emperor has been away at war for three years, along with his second son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou). They return to the Forbidden City as the Chrysanthemum Festival approaches, and soon plots, old secrets, and family dynamics all come out of the woodwork. The emperor is thinking of naming a new successor. The crown prince, Wan, is having an affair with his stepmother and the imperial doctor's daughter. The doctor's daughter, Chan, has been adding a new ingredient to the empress's medicine. The empress, believed to be suffering from anemia for years, is suddenly getting much worse. Not to mention she has taken on a mountain of embroidery that she insists must be finished in time for the festival. And no one pays any attention to the youngest prince, Yu.


As secrets start to be revealed, Jai finds that he must choose between his parents. If he will remain steadfastly loyal to his all-powerful father and emperor, or if he will honor the wishes of his beloved and powerless mother.

The film is notable for its exquisite use of color, Mind Screw inducing visuals and epic battles, as well as Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li starring as the royal couple. It managed to pick up an Academy Award nomination (for costuming). It's also one of the few Chinese films to use a visual metaphor for the Tiananmen Square uprising and get away with it. It is often compared with Legend of the Black Scorpion.


Contains examples of:

  • Abdicate the Throne: The empress's endgame for her husband.
  • Action Mom: Chan's mother is pretty badass.
  • Advancing Wall of Doom: The palace is very well protected against invasion.
  • Archnemesis Dad: The emperor sees it as maintaining the natural order of the family.
  • Armor-Piercing Slap: To the emperor of all people. When the doctor's wife is brought before the emperor, she smacks him when he gets indignant about her marrying the imperial doctor... after the emperor had her family killed and left her for dead. For just a moment, he actually looks ashamed.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: Everyone with a position of authority is more badass than the individual soldiers. They seem to be badass in perfect relation to their level of authority, with the Emperor being the toughest guy in China.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Jai commits suicide at the end rather than be forced to give his beloved mother the poison medicine slowly killing her, then be torn apart by horses once she's dead.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Prince Yu, the meek, gentle third son, murders his brother out of nowhere and demands that the emperor abdicate and put him on the throne.
  • Blood from the Mouth: When someone is stabbed in the torso, this happens.
  • Blade on a Stick: Prince Jai's preferred weapon in the final battle is a guandao, which helps him carve a massive chunk out of the emperor's army.
  • Break the Cutie: Chan's last ten or so minutes on screen result in her literally running screaming into the night.
  • The Bride with a Past: The imperial doctor's wife has a past she hasn't tell her husband yet. She was the emperor's first wife, whom he attempted to kill in order to be free to marry the previous emperor's daughter.
  • Broken Bird:
    • The imperial doctor's wife.
    • The Empress as well, as she does her best to appear cold and calculating, but she is terribly afraid and alone inside.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Chan and Wan, though they don't know it. Whoops.
  • Cain and Abel: Yu kills Wan out of jealousy. Played with in that Yu is the youngest.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: This happens all over the film, and is generally ignored.
  • The Coats Are Off: When the emperor gets serious.
  • Color-Coded Characters: The Empress has red-clad guardsman as well as a golden army of rebels. The Emperor has black-clad ninja-esque guards as well as a silver army.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: Jai is caught between his duty to his father and his love for his mother.
  • Costume Porn: There's plenty of, but the Empress takes the cake.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The golden army does pretty good, killing all the ninjas without much trouble. Then they run into the Imperial Guards, the doors behind them slam shut and the giant shields start moving...
  • Decadent Court: Deadly enough to kill off every major character except the Emperor and Empress.
  • Determinator: The empress. Even after she knows her plot will not succeed, she goes through with it anyway.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Yu tries to stage an uprising in the middle of the Empress and Emperor's battle. He starts this by killing Wan, ostensibly to eliminate the Crown Prince. But in killing his mother's lover, he alienates her and is left without any allies when the Emperor's forces easily obliterate his.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: After the golden army is defeated, the bodies are cleared away and the smashed flower pots are replaced with fresh ones, making it appear that nothing happened.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Jai.
  • Don't Make Me Take My Belt Off!: Or I'll beat you to death with it, Yu.
  • Downer Ending: You could see from the beginning that this story wouldn't have a happy ending. Major death and misery is foreshadowed from the start. Wan figures out Chan is his half-sister, and Chan promptly gets killed along with her mother. Yu kills Wan out of jealousy, the Emperor then beats Yu to death, Jai attempts a coup, but fails spectacularly and commits suicide, and the Empress goes insane.
  • Driven by Envy: Yu, realizing that he will never get the same love and respect his brothers get unless he takes it by force.
  • Driven to Madness: Implied. At the end, the empress completely loses it once she sees all her hopes and her last, favorite child die before her eyes. Also his blood is in her medicine, and she's expected to drink it anyway.
  • Driven to Suicide: Twice, one botched. Jai kills himself so he won't have to poison his mother or be executed painfully.
  • The Dutiful Son: Jai, and this is a serious problem when your parents are against each other.
  • Dysfunctional Family: Very much played for drama.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: The Empress's hair is first worn down when she discovers she's being poisoned, and her hair is likewise down when her affair with Wan is revealed. For the third act, she takes off her headdress, Shaking Her Hair Loose.
  • Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: The Empress is perhaps the only character who never does any actual fighting.
  • The Evil Prince: Subverted with Jai, who tries to take over the throne only to save his mother. Played straight with Prince Yu
  • Extreme Doormat: All three of the princes, in their own ways. Wen is best able to map the political webs of the palace, but he's also Weak-Willed and low-key with his own opinions, letting his parents toss him around in their struggles for power and preferring love affairs and personal happiness to actually resolving the situation. Jai is a mighty warrior and a dutiful son, but he ultimately lets his parents move him around rather than act on his own initiative. And Yu just sort of fades into the background. Yu is the only one who breaks out of this mold in the end, but his pathetic coup only serves to demonstrate why his parents regard him as The Unfavorite. And, ironically, the only person he managed to kill with it was one of the few family members who actually gave a damn about him.
  • Extreme Mêlée Revenge: After the Emperor's youngest son kills the heir to the throne, his father pulls off his massive solid-gold belt and beats him with it, continuing to beat his corpse long after he's dead. His creepy little laugh doesn't help.
  • Fanservice: Chinese historical epics rarely have this much constant, gratuitous cleavage. Chan's bodice does heroic duty.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: But the chrysanthemums are still going to bloom once.
  • Foreshadowing: This conversation in the first few minutes of the movie basically sets up everything.
  • Gambit Pileup: The climax of the movie.
  • Gambit Roulette:
    • The Emperor knew everything. Your scheme? He was on to it from the start. Your accomplices? He was the one who let your letters get to them. That time you stubbed your toe? He was watching!
    • Despite this, it's clear that there were a few elements he failed to predict, especially the death of all three of his sons, especially his heir.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Actually a deconstruction, but this is at least an attitude present in the story. Whether or not the empress is actually somebody to be feared in the end, her husband and the crown prince are perfectly willing to call her mad and dangerous, for rather personal reasons. Given a Beneath the Mask treatment, she's an utterly broken and lonely woman, who's only trying to free herself from her misery, while her husband is far more dangerous.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: It's a given in a movie about imperial China.
  • Gratuitous Ninja: Although the film is set in China, the Emperor's black-clad guardsmen are obviously inspired by Japanese ninja.
  • Happy Marriage Charade: The emperor and empress hate each other, but politics force them to keep up appearances. Even their sons, who knew their parents didn't see eye to eye, are shocked at how deep the rift is.
  • Heir-In-Law: The Emperor is heavily implied to be this. He was a brilliant and recently widowed general who appeared to marry the previous emperor's only daughter, the now Empress. But he had to get rid of his beloved first wife to do so.
  • He Knows Too Much: The emperor states outright that this is why he ordered the deaths of the Imperial Doctor and Chan.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The emperor's determination to maintain absolute control over his family only ensures that the entire family rebels, leaving him with no sons or successor.
  • Honor Before Reason: Jai knows that he has no chance going up against his father, but he considers it his duty to his mother to try anyway.
  • If I Can't Have You…: This is what appears to be behind the empress's dislike for Chan. Though the part where Chan is helping to poison her probably doesn't help.
  • I Know You Know I Know: Not that this stops anybody from going through with their plans.
  • Impossibly Cool Clothes: To match the impossibly cool decor of the Imperial Palace. The climax also involves soldiers armored in silver and gold.
  • Impossibly-Low Neckline: Nearly all the female characters in this film.
  • Improbable Weapon User: The Imperial Doctor uses his large golden spatula to defend his family from Imperial Ninjas. It doesn't go very well.
    • Something of an aversion, as he does attack and defend himself quite successfully until two fatal thrown blades to the back and then a suicide charge to buy his wife time to escape.
  • Induced Hypochondria: Played for drama, and used as a form of political schemes and domestic abuse. The empress doesn't believe she is ill, but try telling anybody else that.
  • Jerkass: The Emperor is perhaps one of the biggest jerkasses ever.
  • Kicked Upstairs: Since the imperial doctor knows too much about the secret ingredient of the Empress' medicine, he pretends to promote him to governor of the province of Suzhou when actually he's sending him away from his wife's influence to have him and his family killed.
  • Knight Templar Parent: The emperor, so much.
  • Laughing Mad: The Emperor after his third son's death.
  • Law of Chromatic Superiority: The Empress's red-armored guards are one of the two groups of soldiers that can take on the Emperor's ninjas, the other being Jai and the captains of his golden army that we see later in the movie.
  • Lonely at the Top: Implied. The emperor had his first wife banished and (presumably) killed, though she was the woman he really loved. At the end he loses all of his sons, his first wife is dead, his second wife is mad, and he's all alone.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Every one of the princes is this.
  • Love-Obstructing Parents: The empress isn't having Chan's relationship with Wan.
  • Maid Corps: The Imperial Palace is staffed by regiments of beautifully gowned young women.
  • Mama Bear: The First Empress. It doesn't work.
  • Man of Wealth and Taste: The emperor. Everything he wears is gold, elaborate, and immaculate.
  • Missing Mom: Wan's mother died when he was very young, and he doesn't remember her. Subverted. The whole story is a lie.
  • Momma's Boy: Jai is very devoted to his mother, but this speaks to his fine moral character instead of being a loser.
  • Nonchalant Dodge: The emperor is not impressed with his youngest son.
  • Not Blood Related: The Empress and Prince Wan are stepmother and stepson, but the squick is still very much present in their relationship.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: The empress knows something is strange about her medicine, but she pretends not to know.
    • Yu pretends he doesn't know what his family gets up to, until the last minute.
  • Of Corsets Sexy: One of the first shots in the movie is a line of lady servants getting their corsets cinched up. The empress also wears a corset-like garment (see the page image). There are a lot of heaving bosoms in this movie. A lot.
  • Offing the Offspring: Prince Yu falls victim to this. Jai almost does as well, until the emperor decides to spare him. For a price.
  • Oh, Crap!: All the time, whenever someone finds out about a plot. Or that someone else knows about their plot.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Everywhere, particularly between characters who hate each other. Usually the subtext is some kind of I Know You Know I Know.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Nearly fatal injuries will not get you out of family functions in this film. Wan makes a failed suicide attempt. He's still showing up at the festival, for appearances.
  • The Paragon Always Rebels: Jai is the clear choice to be the next emperor, and he is the one who leads an army of ten thousand soldiers against the emperor. He is still the hero of the story, though.
  • Parental Favoritism: The emperor has a soft spot for Wan, his only son with the woman he really loved. The empress prefers Jai, who is fiercely loyal to her. This is played with some in that the emperor thinks Jai is more fit to succeed him and the empress is sleeping with Wan and clearly has some non-motherly affection for him.
  • Parental Neglect: No one pays any attention to Yu.
  • Perfect Poison: Averted with the Emperor using a poison that must be consumed every day for two months to become effective.
  • Poison Is Corrosive: The Empress flinging the poisoned tea after the climax of the movie, the splash somehow instantly corrodes the table's engraved wooden chrysanthemum.
  • Psycho Serum: The poison is designed to drive the empress mad, not kill her.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The Emperor. Sure, he won, but lost pretty much everything he gave a damn about in the process, and the ending suggests that he's now going to be Lonely At The Top.
  • Rain of Arrows: Part of the Curb-Stomp Battle.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The emperor gives one to Jai, who gives one right back. The emperor reveals that he was going to make Jai his heir, and that they specifically talked about Jai not trying to take what his father didn't give him. Jai replies that it was never about power, but because the emperor was so cruel to the empress. "I didn't do it for the throne, I did it for my mother." Take that Dad!
  • Redshirt Army: Every single time a new force of soldiers appear, someone else will show up that will wipe them out, and then get wiped out by the next guys.
  • The Reveal: Several in a row. Most dramatically, the Imperial Doctor's wife is actually the Emperor's first wife and the Crown Prince's mother.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The end has the Empress knock her poison medicine into the center of an arrangement of yellow flowers. The medicine begins to eat away at the center, showing the rotting interior of the otherwise splendid empire.
  • Royally Screwed Up: The Empress is having an affair with the Crown Prince, and it all gets worse from there.
  • Sanity Slippage: The effect of the poison.
  • Scenery Porn: In all of its technicolor, rainbow, golden, Imperial Palace glory.
  • Secret-Keeper: The doctor and his daughter Chan are the only ones who know what is the secret ingredient in the empress' medicine.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Jai is the manly one to Wan and Yu's sensitive guys.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Everyone but the Emperor and Empress have died by the end. No one has achieved anything they set out to do.
  • Slipknot Ponytail: The emperor's comes undone during what can only be described as the most epic slap on film. (He's the one performing the slap)
  • Something About a Rose: This is the effect of the golden chrysanthemum the empress has sewn onto a robe for Wan. The romantic implications, among others, make him extremely uncomfortable.
  • Stepford Smiler: The whole Royal family.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Wan and Chan, because he's the Crown Prince and she's only a lady in waiting. And most of all they are siblings.
  • Surprise Incest: Poor Wan and Chan
  • Take a Third Option: Prince Jai kills himself rather than be executed or have to give poison to his mother.
  • Tragic Dream: The empress just wants to be free of her husband's absolute power over her.
  • Tragic Flaw: Jai is deeply loyal to his mother. It is touching and admirable, and also a major component of the tragedy.
  • Tragic Hero: Jai.
  • The Unfavorite: Prince Yu. No one notices or cares about him. He literally stabs his eldest brother in the back in the climax, accusing his father of hating him. His father immediately beats him to death.
  • The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask: The empress.
  • Wrestler in All of Us: During the fight between Yu's soldiers and the Emperor's, one of the latter's does a flying headscissor takedown for Rule of Cool purposes.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: The emperor doesn't say it directly, but you know nothing good is going to happen when the doctor is suddenly sent away.
  • You're Insane!: Said word for word by the Emperor to his son in the English dub.