Stealing Beauty: Empress Phoenix uses her wiles to usurp the throne.

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Millions of yellow chrysanthemums are splattered with the crimson blood of thousands of golden-armored soldiers in this imperial-family drama, the third of Zhang Yimou’s color-coded historical epics. The effect is dazzlingly opulent, but the story behind the hues is meager and disjointed. If production design sometimes defeated storytelling in Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang’s previous exercises in martial-arts spectacle, this time there’s not even a contest; Curse of the Golden Flower belongs to cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, the production and costume design team, and hordes of CGI technicians. That’s unexpected, since the movie should have star power. It’s both Zhang’s reunion with former leading lady Gong Li—who appeared in his first six features—and his debut collaboration with Chow Yun-Fat, who epitomized cool in John Woo’s best Hong Kong flicks. Chow is a smiling but brutal Tang Dynasty emperor who presides over a palace where gold leaf abuts tie-dye, suggesting a Haight-Ashbury version of Versailles. The emperor has ordered his wife (Li) to be slowly poisoned, perhaps because she’s having an affair with her stepson, Wan (Liu Ye). Outfitted in glittering makeup and a severe push-up bra, the empress is also plotting to replace the emperor with the older of her two sons, Jai (Jay Chou). Meanwhile, Wan is conducting a second secret affair with Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the imperial physician and a mysterious woman whose identity actually comes as no great surprise. Ultimately, at the chrysanthemum-themed Chong Yang Festival, Jai leads the golden-armored palace guard against a larger force, loyal to the emperor and clad in silver. Zhang, Wu Nan, and Bian Zhihong’s script is loosely based on historical events, as well as a 1934 play. Shigeru Umebayashi’s Prokofiev-like score has a very Russian grandiosity, and Golden Flower’s motion is mostly as ponderous as its music. But if the film lacks the dancerly grace of Hero and Flying Daggers, perhaps that’s intentional. As a vision of implacable cruelty, this gory saga should give pause to anyone who expects China to gently transmute into a democracy.