Just as you start to fret that all movie plots are alike, along comes Zhang Yimou's action drama "Curse of the Golden Flower," with a storyline...

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Just as you start to fret that all movie plots are alike, along comes Zhang Yimou’s action drama “Curse of the Golden Flower,” with a storyline that’s guaranteed to hoist an eyebrow or two. In 10th-century China, an empress (Gong Li) has long been carrying on an affair with her stepson (Liu Ye), the crown prince — who, as it turns out, would rather run off with the imperial doctor’s daughter (Li Man). Meanwhile, the emperor (Chow Yun Fat) seems to have some diabolical plan of his own afoot, and the empress’ loyal second son (Jay Chou) is concerned about his mother’s failing health and her obsession with embroidering golden chrysanthemums, as any good son should be.

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

“Curse of the Golden Flower,” with Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Liu Ye, Li Man. Directed by Zhang Yimou, from a screenplay by Zhang Yimou, Wu Nan and Bian Zhihong. 114 minutes. Rated R for violence. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Neptune, Uptown.

“Curse of the Golden Flower” is the third of a period action-film trio for Zhang Yimou, following “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” both blooming with riotous color. “Curse” is even more lavish. Beginning with endless rows of pretty maids dressing themselves for their court duties (they move in unison, like a Tang Dynasty version of a Busby Berkeley number), and moving on to oceans of sunshine-yellow chrysanthemums and palace rooms wildly decorated with lashings of pink, orange and gold, it’s vivid to the point of near-explosion. (Exiting the theater post-screening into a gray Seattle afternoon was disconcerting; it seemed as if the world had been suddenly drained of color.)

But while “Curse” is always enjoyable to watch, it seems a bit familiar; much of the action sequences (some of which feature flying daggers) are reminiscent of scenes in Yimou’s previous films. And there’s nothing here as glorious as the Echo Game in “Flying Daggers,” or the richly autumn-hued duels of “Hero.” “Curse,” in its lavishness, occasionally comes off as a tad silly. The armies are so vast they rival those of Middle-earth, and all that chrysanthemum embroidering eventually becomes bizarre. “You are truly insane,” someone tells the madly stitching empress late in the film, and it comes off as an understatement; you wonder if they’re about to cart her off to some obsessive-sewing support group.

Amidst all of this excess, an actor can too easily disappear, or be reduced to a hanger for a costume. But Gong Li, the standout in the cast, does wonders with her melodramatic role. Swathed in gold from head to foot, including her eyelids and fingernails, she’s a gilded peacock, regal and perfectly controlled. This empress dismisses unwanted courtiers with an imperious flick of her flowing sleeve; in a sea of hot colors, she’s an elegantly chilly island.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com