This movie took me back to my childhood- living in a small town in Northern India, I would stop by the video store on Friday afternoons, and pick up half a dozen movies, going through them eagerly over the weekend. The movies were primarily Ninja, Jackie Chan or Chinese classics, with English subtitles or dubbbing. Many times campy, always fun, they transported me from the hot, dusty streets of Kanpur to the fantastic Far(ther) East.
Its 10AD and the queen (the very lovely Gong Li) is having an affair with her stepson, the Crown Prince (CP from now on). The emperor (the always brilliant Yun-Fat Chow) is aware of this betrayal and is consequently slow poisoning her (brilliant- cant he have just had them both beheaded? but no, then there would be no movie). Aiding him in his scheme are the royal physician and his daughter (she is also having an affair with CP).
[This may have been plot enough, but this movie revels in plots within plots- you have to watch with rapt attention- if you don't, you may miss out on a plot or two!]
Annually, the emperor comemorates CP's mom death with a chrysanthemum (the golden flower of the title) festival in her memory. This festival forms the backdrop to the palace intrigue, when we chance upon it.
The emperor had never married CP's mom- she turns out not to have died, but instad to have married the royal physician. Do the math- this means good ol' CP is commiting double incest(!!!)- both his stepmom and his stepsister have apparently fallen for his (higly dubious) charms. [How the emperor has been unaware of his concubine's having remained alive- we do not know, but lets stop conjecturing and trying to make sense of this- lets but innocently dive back into the intrigues...]
CP's mom comes back and tells the queen the truth about the emperor's poisoning her. The queen garners support from her own son (Son #2-for convenience's sake) , who vows to attack the king and thus stop the poisoning (ever more brilliant- cant he spirit his mom away from the kingdom an hide her away? oh well-). In the interim, the emperor discovers CP's mom, makes her husband the governor of a province and sends them off to it, with the daughter in tow. CP visits the physician's family and there figures out that something fishy is brewing at the palace, immediately rushing back. Once there, he questions the queen, finds out that she has plans to attack the king, and then attempts suicide (why? why???), which attempt fails rather miserably (CP is a by far the most annoying character in the whole movie- wimpy, ineffective, and blah- what the heck does the queen see in him? Why has the king made him CP???- questions that befuddle the cosmos).
Meanwhile, the physician is murdered by the emperor's own design, while his daughter and wife flee back to the emperor's palace, and interrupt the chrysanthemum festival. They are murdered, but not before CP learns and meets his mom and half sister (ooh- the embarassment!).
At this juncture, our silent spectator, the emperor's 3rd son (yet another one of the idiots!) intervenes. Ignored all this while, this frustrated teenager murders CP beore the emperor and queen (talk about attention seeking juveniles), while behind the scenes, son#2 has already attacked the palace, at the queen's behest.
The emperor flogs his 3rd son to death- something snaps in the queen upon witnessing her lover, CP's death and she walks away from the scene. Ignorant of his brothers' deaths, son#2 has surrounded the palace, and a fierce battle ensues within the palace grounds. The grounds, covered with golden chrysanthemum blossoms, are now red with blood. Son#2 is captured and presented along with the queen in the morning before the emperor in the palace courtyard, which has now been cleaned of all evidence of the night's very gory battle.
The emperor delivers a Poirot style talk, revealing that he knew their plans all along. The chrysanthemum festival continues in the background, with fireworks and flowers in resplendent display. The emperor makes son#2 (btw- his name is Jai in the movie and Jay in real life) an offer- he shall be the new CP is he makes his mother drink the hourly medicine (not just poisonous this last time- we see later that it was puer acid). The prince refuses and takes his own life rather than kill his mother, who finally loses her mind after witnessing her own son's death. The emperor is the last man standing.
Whew- that was some movie- plots within plots, intrigues within intrigues. (My husband still has 1 lingering question- how did such a powerful emperor raise such wimpy kids???) The cinematography was breathtaking, every frame pure beauty (The pix here truly do not do enough justice to it). Everyone acted fabulously, with special honors to the emperor's wife#1 (I do not know her name) for an act delivered with utmost grace- well played madam! Movies like this come few and far between- See it!