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"Curse of the Golden Flower"; "Fanfan La Tulipe" 

Chow Yun-Fat returns; the French classic unspools anew

They deserve to bloom once


Forget about film criticism for a moment. It's totally subjective, as well as a bit of a scam; let's be honest.

Every movie fan has that one actor that they would watch in anything, quality be damned --- it could be a great movie, an awful TV show, a staged reading of the Magna Carta, or even a court-mandated trash pickup along the side of the highway. And it's not just a physical thing, though the object of this adoration is usually quite swoonworthy. Whatever "it" is, they've got it. For me, this person is Chow Yun-Fat.

I've devoured Hong Kong classics like John Woo's The Killer and Ringo Lam's City on Fire, endured stateside swill like The Replacement Killers, and bawled my way through the repressed romance of the awesome Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the not-even-that-good Anna and the King. Chow's been absent from American screens for a couple of years, and before he plunders the multiplex this May in the final Pirates of the Caribbean installment, he's portraying a charismatically evil emperor in Curse of the Golden Flower, the latest eye-popping epic from arthouse mainstay Zhang Yimou, director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

Zhang calls upon his former leading lady Gong Li (last seen in Miami Vice) to play opposite Chow as his formidable Empress, whose husband is plotting her ruination by plying her with a rare fungus designed to relieve her of her sanity. The reasoning behind the betrayal becomes clear as we meet the Emperor's three sons, each more weak-willed than the last. The Empress learns of the plot against her from a surprise ally with secret ties to two of the men in her life, leading to a vicious power struggle between the resourceful Empress and the cruel Emperor and climaxing with a majestic, Two Towers-worthy battle scene pitting the forces aligned with each half of the warring couple.

Comparison to Zhang's flawless Hero is understandable though possibly unfair, as Golden Flower couldn't possibly measure up. The former is a heartbreaking exercise in elegance, while the latter features over-the-top performances serving an occasionally puzzling storyline with no clear protagonist, making emotional investment tough. But Zhang's visuals are dependably astonishing, whether it's the Day-Glo opulence of the Tang Dynasty palace, the Emperor's silent, gravity-defying henchmen, or the buttery cleavage brimming over yards and yards of rich brocade.

So Chow-wise, does Golden Flower attain Hard Boiled heights or sink to Bulletproof Monk depths? Truthfully, this frustrating film falls somewhere in between, a melodramatic mix of Shakespearean tragedy, John Sayles' Lone Star, 1944's Gaslight, and The Doors' song "The End." But then Chow fills the screen, all lusty glower and serene power, and I resign myself to the fact that no matter how sudsy or excessive this nonetheless stunningly shot film is, I will likely make time to see it again.

Before the nouvelle vague swept over the French landscape in the mid '50s with its discreet sensibilities, Christian-Jaque won Best Director at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival for Fanfan La Tulipe, a bombastic swashbuckler about a loveable rogue who stirs up trouble by defying authority and enchanting the ladies. Charming GérardPhilipe stars as Fanfan, the guest of dishonor at a forced wedding until he meets Adeline (Italian siren Gina Lollobrigida, her abundant allure on full display), thought by Fanfan to be a gypsy but instead a deft military recruiter. So Fanfan joins Louis XV's army and fantasizes about marrying the King's lovely daughter, much to Adeline's growing dismay.

Of course you know how Fanfan La Tulipe will end, and it is sweetly dated in its broad, unsubtle comedy and harmless misogyny. Plus we're so used to cinematic combat bolstered by wire-fu and Foley artistry that earthbound swordplay that doesn't sound like an underworld iron forge seems somehow lacking. But it's such fun, with popular French actor Philipe (he would succumb to cancer at age 36, just seven years later) doing all his own stunts and looking as though he's having the time of his life. They don't make them like this anymore. Well, they do, but they cheat.

Curse of the Golden Flower (R), directed by Zhang Yimou, opens Friday, January 12, at Little Theatres | Fanfan La Tulipe (NR), directed by Christian-Jaque, plays the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre Friday, January 12, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, January 14, at 4:30 p.m.

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