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MOVIE REVIEW

'Flower' looks lovely but plot is overheated

Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) is plotting revenge against her husband for poisoning her. Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) is plotting revenge against her husband for poisoning her.

Zhang Yimou has done it again. "Curse of the Golden Flower" looks as toothsome as his other martial-arts epics, "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers." The tinting in some sequences makes the speeding horses kick up emerald dust. And the pinks, oranges, reds, yellows, blues, and greens on all the interior sets look like a Popsicle factory exploded inside a 10th-century Tang Dynasty palace. Licorice black is the color of everybody's hair, the bad guys' uniforms, and more than one heart.

Needless to say, as easy as this movie is to watch, it's artificially flavored. "Golden Flower" runs on crocodile tears and corn-syrup blood. The stars, at least, are real -- even if Gong Li's inflated cleavage is anything but. She's working with Zhang for the first time since their great collaborations from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s (including "Ju Dou," and "Raise the Red Lantern") ended over a decade ago, after the demise of their romantic relationship.

For this reunion, Zhang has fashioned a vapid spectacular about an acrobatically dysfunctional family. A bearded Chow Yun-Fat is the Emperor Ping, a political opportunist who's been poisoning his wife, the Empress Phoenix (Gong), for over a week. She pretends not to know, plotting her revenge in time for the Chrysanthemum Festival. In all fairness, the emperor might be on to the fact that she's been having an affair with her stepson, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), whose birth mother's death many years ago soon proves a source of aggravation for everybody. Poor Prince Wan is torn between his father's stoic missus and the girlish daughter (Li Man) of the imperial doctor (Ni Dahong) who knows what the emperor is up to.

The empress shares the bad news about her health with her eldest biological son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), who's just returned with dad from battle. Now he's torn, too. Add to this stew the youngest prince (Qin Junjie ), smirking in a proverbial corner, and an athletic lady trespasser (Chen Jin) who's the keymaster of the movie's many secrets , though there is one secret that manages to blow her mind. Welcome to "As the Empire Turns," or to put it bluntly: "Dynasty."

Most of "Golden Flower" works as a parody of soap operas' byzantine bloodlines and overheated acting. Here the latter consists of dramatically whipped-around heads and both genders' bosoms heaving heavily in the search for climactic tears. Each breakdown feels like a "Eureka!" moment. Chow and Gong sail along the waterworks with deceptive skill. They make emoting through the choreography and heavy costumes look sexy.

The comely young stars are less credible -- or under the melodramatic circumstances, more. In reaction shots, Liu Ye's elaborate facial contortions are the stuff of silent German expressionism . Chen Jin's performance is the strongest and most emotionally believable, if only because her character's grief is understandable. It wouldn't be out of place in one of Zhang's recent modern dramas.

"Golden Flower" enjoys the juiciest, if leanest plot, of Zhang's three martial-arts pictures (he wrote it with Wu Nan and Bian Zhihong). And with all respect to Gong and Chow, however, the set and costumes are the bigger stars here. Yee Chung Man's ornate clothes and Huo Tingxiao's rococo interior designs -- as well as how stimulatingly Zhao Xiaoding has photographed them -- are pure production-design porn. But, once it's all over, "Golden Flower," like "Hero" and "Flying Daggers," leaves a flat taste. These are entertainments whose relentless flamboyance is an end unto itself.

Last year, Zhang made "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles," which concerned a Japanese father's trip to modern rural China on his ill son's behalf. It might have seemed like an earnest attempt to get back into social-realist shape. Really, it was an unplugged version of these swordfight movies: lugubrious, drunk on opera, and eager to please Zhang's backers in the Chinese government with its folksy gloss on the nation. But that film, as corny as it was, placed a premium on life-size human ache. "Golden Flower" is so soullessly melodramatic that all the emoting feels counterfeit by comparison.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies.

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