It’s a safe bet that most of the people who snickered through the screening I attended of Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower had never seen a grand opera performance. Even that frame of reference might not have been enough to make them love the movie: All told, Zhang’s latest is a lavishly overdecorated period melodrama with a lot of meaningless, bustling energy. It tries frenetically hard to convince us it’s overheated and thunderously emotional, but it has a cold heart. The huge gestures that some literal-minded people find ludicrous — the expressionistic heads of billowing hair that always seem to cast off their elaborate, jeweled hairpins at peak dramatic moments — do have noble theatrical pedigrees. But it may be the wrong theatrical tradition for this story.

The source material for Curse is Cao Yu’s Thunderstorm,a naturalistic protest play written in the 1930s about the internal contradictions in the feudal household of a rural mine owner. It’s one of those scathing socialist exposés in which the characters’ rancid sexual habits resonate a little too conveniently with their roles as capitalistic oppressors. Zhang has projected this politically orthodox official classic back in time to the 10th century, into the suffocatingly overdecorated lair of an emperor and empress (Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li) who are locked in clandestine mortal combat — a war of attrition in which their three sons and/or stepsons are the anguished pawns, and where political alliances mesh and clash with quasi-incestuous mommy and daddy fixations.

Zhang has always had an operatic sensibility: At his best he uses everything in the frame expressively — color, rippling fabrics, and especially headlong movement. Everything becomes an extension of the characters’ passions. But in Curse, his 15th feature since the former cinematographer made his directorial debut with Red Sorghum in 1987, Zhang’s trademark pulsating style has finally spilled over into mannerism. What Curse links up with in his past work isn’t the muscular romanticism of Ju Dou (1990) or House of Flying Daggers (2004), but the dazzling orientalist pageantry of Turandot, the Puccini opera he directed in 1997, with Zubin Mehta conducting, first in Florence and then in the Forbidden City in Beijing. (The complex production was documented in Alan Miller’s 2000 film, The Turandot Project.)

At first the sheer mind-boggling scale of this $45 million production — the literal armies of extras, the 10,000 actual chrysanthemums, the endlessly receding rows of palace pillars glittering with inlaid colored glass — seems to be making a point about the megalomania of the emperor’s lifestyle, in which the slightest twitch of resentment becomes a political crisis that could upend several regal regimes. But in the end, Curse also looks alarmingly like a dry run for the opening and closing ceremonies Zhang has been hired to direct for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. The meaning recedes and all that’s left is the sheer bludgeoning spectacle of perfectly aligned phalanxes of thousands of real soldiers, trotting, jogging and running in lockstep in rattling golden armor, creating an unholy Dolby Digital din.

There are aspects of Zhang’s filmmaking that still shine: a couple of the large-scale action set pieces he has designed with Hong Kong wire wizard Ching Siu-Tung (House of Flying Daggers) are gorgeously staged. And as always, Zhang wears his love for actors on his sleeve. The great Chow Yun-Fat projects a raw force of personality, of damnable determination, that makes the knee-knocking terror he inspires in his offspring perfectly believable. And Gong Li is still the most beautiful actress on Earth, an audience-seducing diva movie star of a type that is nearly extinct in the West. Of all the great beauties of the screen, she is perhaps the most robust and intimidating. Men don’t dream of swooping in and rescuing her from jeopardy, as they might about the breakable-looking Zhang Ziyi. Gong has her own reserves of power, and working with her for the first time since their professional and personal relationships ended abruptly in 1995, Zhang exploits that powerfully. It lends a magnetic undercurrent of rage to one of the most daringly extended dying-swan roles since Camille breathed her last.

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER | Directed by ZHANG YIMOU | Written by ZHANG YIMOU, WU NAN and BIAN ZHI-HONG, based on the play Thunderstorm by CAO YU | Produced by WILLIAM KONG, ZHANG WEI-PING and ZHANG YIMOU | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | Selected theaters

LA Weekly