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Family secrets Yimou's latest relies too much on familiar themes

The title "Curse of the Golden Flower" makes it pretty clear what audiences can expect from a film, doesn't it? Lavish costumes, large-scale battle sequences, mysterious beauties, feuding royalty, dysfunctional families -- in other words, an ancient Chinese epic, writ large.

This is its No. 1 selling point -- similar themes, visuals and action to commercially and critically successful romps such as director Zhang Yimou's earlier films "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," as well as Ang Lee's mighty "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

But "Curse," like the visually sumptuous bore-fest "Flying Daggers," shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as "Tiger," or "Hero" for that matter. Yimou's new film is a melodramatic, overstuffed concoction that never grips emotionally, rarely thrills and offers nothing that its director and stars have not done better before.

What the film does have, however, is spectacle, and lots of it. From a dreamy, rainbow-colored hallway to an endless garden of flowers, giant, ostentatious palace doors and more gold than the G-Unit Christmas party, it is a triumph of production design.

"Curse" also has the presence of two major international stars: Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li. Yun-Fat plays the emperor, and Li is his empress. Theirs is not a happy marriage, carrying with it secrets, attempts to induce insanity, quasi-incest and spying, and that's only at the 15-minute mark.

The setting is China, 928 A.D., during the Later Tang Dynasty. We are stuck, along with the empress, behind the sturdy walls of the Imperial Palace. It is a place of wealth and ritual, but also a building sense of danger.

It is when dealing with the family's Kennedys-gone-wilder dysfunction that Yimou drops the ball. The empress is sleeping with the emperor's first-born (different mother -- phew!), but enlisting the couple's first son, the crown prince, to help her dethrone the emperor, who isn't too crazy about their youngest son, who's always lurking around corners and -- well, you get the idea.

Things drag until a stunning midfilm ninja attack, before leading to the standard scene of two gargantuan armies rushing at each other. Even a "Maury"-style paternity revelation doesn't register.

Still, "Curse" has gorgeous vistas, bold design and the heart-stopping Li.

Perhaps it is merely mental fatigue following countless other similarly themed Chinese-history spectacles. Or maybe it's due to a story that attempts to do too darn much. Yimou stuffs in everything he can think of, but "Golden Flower" can't seem to summon more than a mildly diverting spell.

***

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER

2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat, Jay Chou and Liu Ye

DIRECTOR: Zhang Yimou

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

RATING: R for violence.

THE LOWDOWN: Family secrets are unearthed and battles waged by the Emperor of China in 928 A.D.

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