Dir: Zhang Yimou. China. 2006.114mins.

China's mostexpensive production to date has every yuang up onthe screen. One of the most sumptuous and almost absurdly opulent spectacles onscreen in recent memory, Zhang Yimou's $45m epic Curse Of the GoldenFlower is fortunately not just a pretty face. It's also a meaty,blood-soaked melodrama filled with intrigue, deception and incest that wouldmake Lady Macbeth and Emperor Nero proud.

A warm reception should beforthcoming from critics and arthouse audiences aroundthe world, although Golden Flower isshort on action and unlikely to crossover to the young males who lapped upZhang's martial arts spectaculars Heroand House OfFlying Daggers.

But chances for awardsrecognition are high; the film is China's submission for the AcademyAward and stands a good shot at a nomination. And despite its foreign-languagestatus, it is almost impossible to imagine that it won't be acknowledged incinematography (as was House) anddesign categories. Curse Of The Golden Flower opens in the US and China next month.

Zhang previously exploredthe gender politics of a powerful household in his masterful Raise The RedLantern (1991) set in the early 20th century. In Curse Of The Golden Flower, a less disciplined but more lustily enjoyableaffair, he goes back to 10th-century China to the imperial palace of the Tangdynasty, one of the most flamboyantly wealthy and ostentatious reigns in thecountry's history.

After an absence of threeyears, the emperor (Chow Yun Fat) returns to thepalace with his second son Prince Jai (Jay Chou) ostensibly to celebrate the Chong Yang festival (chrysanthemum festival) but in realityto decide which of his three sons will be his successor.

While he was away, hisestranged wife the empress (Gong Li) has been sleeping with his eldest, favourite son, crown prince Wan (Liu Ye), who was born ofhis now dead first wife. The empress is kept medicated by the emperor and theimperial doctor (Ni Dahong) for supposed anemia, butthe emperor has recently introduced some new deadly ingredients into her dailybrew.

Meanwhile Wan is having asecret affair with the imperial doctor's daughter Chan (Li Man) and, to theempress' chagrin, he is planning to leave the palace for a distant provincewith his lover and abandon his entitlement to the throne to Jai. The third sonprince Yu (Qin Junjie) isstill a teenager but he harbours his own youthfulambitions to usurp Wan and Jai as his father's successor.

The empress has moreplausible secret plans to seize power but she is increasingly prone to fits offever and has developed an obsession with the golden flower emblems of theforthcoming festival.

Suspicious of the medicationher husband forces her to take, she hires a spy todiscover what is the new ingredient which is making her ill. The spy turns outto be the imperial doctor's wife (Chen Jin), who, it emerges, has her ownreasons for aiding the empress.

As the festival approaches,the imperial doctor is given a new posting to a remote region of China with hiswife and daughter but on their way they are attacked by the emperor's assassinswho attempt to kill them all. Chan and her mother race back to the palace for afinal showdown with the emperor and his decidedly dysfunctional family.

Like Red Lantern, Golden Flowertakes place mostly within the confines of the palace itself, the only otherlocation being a countryside inn. But Zhang and his cinematographer Zhao arenot confined by their locations; on the contrary they sweep exuberantly throughthe golden hallways, corridors, bed chambers, apothecaries, dining areas andcourtyards of the palace as if they were gliding through forests and mountainranges.

The palace interiors andexterior are a wonder of design and set decoration, the costumes, hair andmakeup staggeringly ornate, the colour palette ofyellows and reds that Zhang has created is meticulous and breathtaking. Thebloody battle in the forecourt of the palace at the film's climax as a goldenarmy is massacred on a bed of chrysanthemums is eye-popping. It's almost toomuch visual splendour and information to digest inone sitting.

None of the twistedmachinations of the operatic plot come as a surprise but the pleasure is all inthe malicious relish of the performances, most notably from the magnificentGong Li who quivers, sobs and heaves her way through the high drama, her bosomcollapsing out of her jewel-encrusted bustier, her head bedecked in elaboratejewels and hairdos. One minute warmly embracing her children, the next plottingagainst her husband with icy vengeance in her eyes, the next tearfully gulpingdown a poison which she knows is driving her insane,Gong is a spectacle in herself.

She is matched by Chow Yun Fat, impressively imperious as the slightly dementedemperor, and Liu Ye, who is effectively tortured as the unhappy oldest son.

Production companies/backers
Film Partner International Inc
Edko Films Ltd
Beijing New Picture Film Co

US distribution
Sony Pictures Classics

International sales
Edko Films Ltd
Focus Features

Bill Kong
Zhang Weiping

Zhang Yimou
Wu Nan
Bian Zhihong

Zhao Xiaoding

Production design
Huo Tingxiao

Cheng Long

Shigeru Umebayashi

Main cast
Chow Yun Fat
Gong Li
Jay Chou
Liu Ye
Chen Jin
Ni Dahong
Li Man
Qin Junjie