Year Released: 2006
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li, Liu Ye, Chen Jin, Jay Chou, Qin Junjie
(R, 114 min.)
"The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves." Sophocles
Set in China’s Forbidden City, this epic melodrama explodes with color and exuberance inversely proportional to the bleak and black-hearted dysfunctional family that reigns there. Ballet-like battles are as deadly as they are beautiful, and evil all the more so as it festers in a gilded cage.
It’s all there – a setting drunk with gold and dizzying color, making the painted halls of Marie Antoinette’s Versailles pale and insignificant by comparison. Court intrigue, adultery, incest, passion and revenge on the scale of Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, or the Jerry Springer Show – take your pick.
This fictional tale is set in the Later Tang Dynasty (923-936 AD) a period of overripe decadence when pomp and circumstance stand in for substance, and daily rituals mask an inner decay. The military discipline of crack troops, the impersonal precision of a beehive, the choreographed beauty of a Broadway chorus line are all apparent in the early morning wakeup for the female courtiers, who fold up their sleeping pallets and dress themselves for the day. The queen bee is, of course, the empress (Gong Li), clothed in golden gowns as elaborate as they are uncomfortable, her long nails manicured canvases of intricate design, her coiffure sparkling with glittering tapestry and gold. But the queen bee is more trapped by the surrounding hive than in charge of it.
Each hour the gong sounds, a saccharin maxim directs all toward ordered virtue, and the empress’s medicine arrives on a jeweled tray. A train of the female courtiers kneels before her, offering up a goblet of green elixir which she obediently drinks, albeit with a stoic grimace, the taste of which cannot be erased by an ensuing procession of gargles she discreetly spits into a beautiful basin. Flights of dizziness and perspiration bead her lovely brow after each dose, but the emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) insists on the regimen, which he proclaims will cure her anemia and sour disposition.
It’s not enough that he is poisoning her, but in such a devilishly cruel way, having the court physician grind some exotic fungus into her medicine that will ultimately drive her insane. Of course her two year intimacy with his son by an earlier marriage, not technically incest, you know, gives him good reason for vengeance, but the audience soon learns the emperor has a lot more on his conscience than the petty sins of the flesh his consort indulges in, such as the imprisonment and death of almost an entire family. Ultimately, it’s the almost that threatens him, the one lone survivor and witness to his evil.
But evil as he is, Chow Yun-Fat is no cardboard villain. He has a deep love for the son who has cuckolded him, blaming the seduction on the empress instead. He has pride in the battle hardened Prince Jai, even as that son fights against him. Gong Li as the empress casts as much venom with her eyes as that in her poisoned drink, but we see them soften with filial love for her son Jai, and then desperate passion for the now distant paramour-stepson, Prince Wan. She is arrogant, aloof, cunning, yet fragile and courageous as well. The presence and chemistry of these two Asian screen legends anchor the film, bringing a majesty to its sometimes over the top brittle melodrama.
We always lament that divorce is so hard on the children, but this one – divorce Italian style – drags not only the three sons into it, but the entire kingdom, all those golden armored, black-sheathed, and silver clad warriors laying down their collective lives to fight out in proxy battle the dispute between the royal couple, who must, for the sake of the empire, maintain a frigid amnesty.
And such a series of battles they are, certainly not the bloody carnage of Brave Heart or the agonizing gore of Saving Private Ryan, but a beautiful and almost impersonal confrontation where the shiny armor is mostly free of blood, and the lifeless bodies dragged off promptly to make way for the spectacle of the Chrysanthemum Festival, each blood soaked golden flower replaced with brutal efficiency by an innocent one.
The day of the Chrysanthemum Festival is the showdown between the powerful Emperor and his deceiving but desperate Empress. This Festival falls on the 9th day of the 9th month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar and is called Chong Yang or double Yang, since both the ninth month and the ninth day belong to yang, which is active and masculine. Not such a propitious time for the empress to try to defeat her husband, I would think.
Perhaps she would have been better off to follow Marie Antoinette’s advice to eat cake, which is what most Chinese do on this day, washed down with ample quantities of Chrysanthemum wine.
Our Chinese Sponge cake is steamed and thus very moist, just the thing to pick you up on a gray winter evening.
Chinese Sponge Cake
The secret of this recipe for sponge cake lies in the fact it is steamed, which makes it very moist. Serve sponge cake with strawberries or other fresh fruit for a light dessert.
- 1 cup cake flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 5 eggs
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 tsp almond extract
Line a 9 X 9 inch cake pan with parchment paper. Prepare a wok for steaming.
Place the flour in a medium bowl. Sift in the baking powder and salt and set aside.
Separate the egg yolks and the egg whites.
In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and beat briefly. Add 1/4 cup of sugar and beat for another minute (don't let the egg whites stiffen). Add the egg yolks and the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar. Beat for about 2 more minutes. Stir in the almond extract. Gradually add the flour mixture to the egg mixture, stirring. Mix thoroughly, but do not beat.
Pour the batter into the cake pan. Bring the water in the wok to a high boil, then turn down to medium. Steam the cake, covered, for 40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool and turn over. Cut into squares.
Recipe Source: About Chinese Cuisine