Director Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower, China’s official Oscar entry, is as visually opulent as the 10th dynasty that it depicts. Set during one of the most flamboyant eras in Chinese history, this epic story of palace intrigue reveals the disturbing decay and deeply held secrets of a dysfunctional imperial family, thinly veiled beneath a lavish facade of wealth, privilege and power. It’s presented with historical authenticity, and the elaborate and intricate contributions of the crew in recreating the look and feel of this ostentatious world are apparent in every frame.Below the Line: Why did you choose to tell this story?Zhang Yimou: The story is adapted from a famous modern drama called Thunderstorm. This drama is a household word in China and is basic repertoire for Chinese drama students. It is set during the 1920s and ’30s and is about the internal conflicts of a family that come to light during a thunderstorm. I was always attracted to the play. Although it is performed all the time, nobody had the idea of setting it in traditional China. I chose the Tang Dynasty because it was such a luxurious time and conjures glorious memories for people. I wanted to take this decadent, dark story and place it in a beautiful, shiny environment to create a strong contrast.BTL: Because visual style is so important to you, how did you find a cinematographer who could achieve your vision?Yimou: I have worked with Zhao Xiaoding four times before—on Hero, House of Flying Daggers, a smaller art film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, and now on this collaboration. In some ways he is my study brother, because we graduated—different generations—from the Beijing Film Academy cinematography department. I see eye-to-eye with him in terms of visuals. I first got turned on to him when I saw some commercials that he shot. His attention to detail blew me away.BTL: How does your own background in cinematography affect your communication with Zhao Xiaoding? Is it easier because you speak the same language?Yimou: Because of our backgrounds, it is only natural that we both have the passion to talk about technical issues regarding cinematography. Usually, when we have a new project, we sit down and discuss the visual aspects of the film in great detail—everything from color to camera movement to the size of the shots. Only after we settle on a direction do we proceed with shooting. Once we start shooting, these conversations almost completely cease. We follow the plan that we nailed down during the discussion period.On set, if he is changing a lens or the position of a camera, I know exactly what he is doing. In cases where he is doing something that I am not expecting, or he is moving away from what we originally discussed, I will immediately remind him, “Is that what we really want?” That saves us a lot of time. Rather than shooting scenes with the wrong angle or lens, I can catch it and make sure the shot is carried out as planned.This film was a big challenge for lighting, especially the big battle sequences that were all done at night. We shot from sunset to sunrise for 20 days. More lights were used during that sequence than I have ever used in my entire career.BTL: What made production designer Huo Tingxiao your choice for such an intricate project?Yimou: In terms of art directors that can handle large-scale productions, and really do it well, there are not many. I knew from my past experience working with him that he would be perfect. We always had a wonderful collaborative relationship.BTL: How did you come up with the ideas for the color palette and the luminous sets through the use of Chinese art glass in the production design?Yimou: The theme of the film was important in dictating the art direction. In China we talk about the marriage between form and content and having these complement each other and work together. The Tang Dynasty is known as one of the most opulent eras in Chinese history. We wanted to capture that splendor—the gloriousness, the colors, the vibrancy, the beauty—and push it to the limit in order to set it off against the darkness of human nature that was going on inside the palace.Art glass handicrafts were a major part of that splendor. Real ones are extremely expensive. A small vessel could cost up to 10,000 Chinese dollars to make so we had to find a cheaper replacement. It took us four or five months of experimenting with different types of glassware to find something affordable that could capture the look that we wanted. It wasn’t just small vessels that were manufactured, but also larger pieces like the columns in the palace. They took a long time to make. Hundreds of the smaller pieces were made. In the end we did not have a use for a lot of them, so we hung them up on one of the walls, so even ones that did not have a fundamental role in the film, added to the palace ambiance. We also experimented with using gold dust in different places.BTL: The sets were enormous. Where were they built?Yimou: The exterior sets were shot in Hengdian in Zhejiang Province where there is a huge Imperial Palace film set. Building began on it back when I was working on Hero. It was just completed last year, but nobody used it because it was too big. It was perfect for what we were doing. Interiors were shot in a studio.BTL: The dragon robe and the phoenix gown worn by the emperor and empress each took 40 artisans over the course of two months to construct. How did you choose Yee Chung Man, a costume designer you had never worked with before, to design these elaborate, handcrafted costumes?Yimou: It may seem like I never worked with him before, but actually he is an old friend. We worked together in 1988 when I was an actor on a film called A Terracotta Warrior. He was art director on that film. He is one of the leading art directors in Hong Kong. I know his work and have complete faith in him so we started discussions about the approach to the clothing. We wanted to emphasize the gold. There is this saying in China, “You wear golden clothing and silver ornaments.” The very wealthy, the emperors wear gold. We wanted to capture that. A huge amount of time went into designing these clothes, but we couldn’t just have a fashion show, we needed to serve the story.Seventy percent of the costume design is loyal to what we know about the clothing people wore during the Tang Dynasty. It is an intricate part of Chinese history and culture so we could not take too many liberties when we were adapting. Most of the actors are wearing four to six layers of clothing. Those internal layers all have meticulous embroidery. All you see is the collar area with a few layers coming out a bit, but it is there. I feel that wearing those clothes helped the actors get into their roles. When you’re wearing those types of garments, you feel like an emperor. There had been a scene in the film of the emperor and empress getting dressed, putting on all these layers. It was a beautiful scene, but the pacing was a little too slow, so we took it out.BTL: Many scenes have large numbers of extras, such as the ladies-in-waiting waking and the battle scenes. What scenes were enhanced by visual effects?Yimou: The opening sequence with the girls waking up is all real people. There is a saying that China may be wanting of many things, but not people. It is never difficult finding people to be in the shot. In a few areas—the battle sequences where we had around 800 extras—we used digital manipulation to add more people. This is the second time I’ve dealt with that many people. One of my special traits is that I can take a small amount of people and make them look like a massive amount on film.BTL: Your editor, Cheng Long, trained at Temple University in Philadelphia and AFI in Los Angeles. This is his third time working with you. What do you like about his editing?Yimou: He is very hardworking and well acquainted with many of the action techniques in Hollywood-style filmmaking. It’s no
t just simple editing. There is the whole process with the computer-generated effects. Because he is American-trained, he speaks English so he is able to have direct communication with all the people in New Zealand, London, Thailand, Australia and Hong Kong working on the various effects. That was a bonus for us. BTL: How did you land Tao Jing as the sound designer for the film?Yimou: Tao Jing is an old classmate of mine from the Beijing Film Academy. We have worked together for more than a decade and have a wonderful working relationship. As far as sound design goes in China, especially for large-scale productions, he is the best. For the smaller art films that I sometimes do, the requirements in terms of sound design are not necessarily as high, as long as it feels real. For a huge production like this there is a whole different philosophy in play. For big productions, he is great, not only technically, but he has incredible ideas that he brings to the table in terms of sound design. All the major productions in China want him.BTL: You used Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi for the score.Yimou: House of Flying Daggers was our previous collaboration. He is a wonderful composer and is excellent at crafting gorgeous, touching melodies. Strong melodies are what is most important in films. He is also willing to adapt his compositions for certain scenes if something doesn’t quite work. Not all composers will to do that.BTL: Your action director, Tony Ching Siu Tung, is another regular collaborator on your team.Yimou: On A Terracotta Warrior, he was the director and I was the actor. Now the tables are turned a bit. He is without question one of the top three action directors in Hong Kong. He has an amazing imagination and brings a lot of creative elements to martial arts sequences. When we worked together on Hero and House of Flying Daggers, he was able to take things further than I ever imagined. This film presented a new challenge because it was rooted in realism, so in these magnificent fight scenes there had to be a solid base. For instance, when the assassins are coming down from the mountain, they couldn’t just fly. They needed to have some device, like the ropes to slide down on.
Written by Mary Ann Skweres