The style of Curse of the Golden Flower benefits greatly from its connection to Chinese culture and heritage. Everything in the film is larger than life and therefore seems mythic and archetypal. Chinese culture, with its focus on one’s duty to a community rather than an individual’s duty to itself, is ready and waiting to accept the group-promoting agenda of Jung’s “collective unconscious,” which is a prerequisite for archetypes.
Flower’s archetypal leanings are apparent in many elements of its construction, not the least of which is its plot. The dynamics of a very messed-up family take center stage, with plenty of archetypal tropes – poisoning, usurping, brotherly rivals, accidental incest – common to Greek myths and Shakespeare. The story is an epic, classical tragedy with themes of universal corruption and suffering. Visually, the film is also archetypal: an ornate palace takes up most of the scenes, often with hundreds of servants seemingly trained to do nothing but stand around in incredibly straight lines, while picturesque shots of mountainous terrain take up the rest.
It’s all too lush and streamlined to be realistic, and the effect is therefore that of archetypes, those elements of life too true for reality.
Even the soundtrack is archetypal, with pounding drums and hushed chanting serving to build up a rhythmic sense of inevitability. The cinematography heightens the unreal situation at times: several early fight scenes use fast-cut footage to disorient the viewer and to force a focus on individual elements of the scene such as emblems on the breastplates. A fragmented, pared-down view is just as archetypal as a vast, streamlined one.
Flower uses heightened emotions often, in keeping with its larger-than-life style, but also habitually portrays subdued, hidden emotions in all its characters, as every family member is keeping something hidden from the others. Among all the stylized visuals and drama, this element of subtlety keeps the film slightly more grounded. Even so, with all the melodrama so actively encouraged throughout Flower, it was difficult for me to take many overdramatic scenes seriously. As a result, the film didn’t have as deep an emotional impact on me as the director no doubt intended. It was still an experience, though, so the archetypal approach was still a positive, in addition to unique, technique.