The new film Curse of the Golden Flower is the third consecutive collaboration between director Yimou Zhang and cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao, HKSC, following The House of Flying Daggers (see AC Jan. ’05), for which Zhao earned an Oscar nomination, and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.
Set in the 10th century, Golden Flower is a tale of deception and betrayal that pits emperor (Yun-fat Chow) against empress (Li Gong) and father against sons. The old Chinese saying, “Gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside,” encapsulates the film’s theme, except that in Golden Flower, the color palette is dominated by gold, red and pink. “Those are considered imperial colors in Chinese tradition, which is why we used them as the key tones during production,” explains Zhao, who communicated with AC via e-mails translated by Alice Yeung. “We made them even stronger and more saturated during the digital intermediate [DI], which we did at Intercolor in Australia with colorist Warren Lynch.”
Principal photography began in February 2006 and ended five months later. Working in Super 35mm 2.35:1, Zhao limited himself to two Kodak Vision2 stocks, 500T 5218 and 50D 5201, which he cites for their “excellent latitude and sharpness.” (The negative was processed at Technicolor’s Bangkok subsidiary.) As usual, he eschewed filters on the lens.
All interior scenes at the Forbidden City (a name often used to refer to the imperial palace) were shot at the Beijing Movie Studio. For exteriors, the production utilized a mammoth set that had been constructed in Hengdian, Zhejiang Province, after The Last Emperor made the original structure a sought-after filming location. The 1:1 replica was built to preserve the original’s architecture.
Zhao estimates that 85 percent of Golden Flower was filmed with multiple cameras. Rented from Cinerent in Beijing, the camera package included four Arri models (Studio, Lite, 435 and 235) and a set of Cooke S4 primes, which Zhao lauds for their “excellent contrast and high definition.” He also used Cooke 18-100mm and 25-250mm zoom lenses; Zeiss Ultra Prime 10mm and 12mm lenses (to capture the scale of the Forbidden City’s massive outdoor courtyard); a Zeiss 300mm; an Elite 9.6mm; and three Arri Macros, 16mm, 40mm and 200mm.
Golden Flower features numerous action sequences, but Zhao discussed some other aspects of the production with AC, starting with how framing and composition reflect the story’s emotional currents. The early scenes are filled with camera movements that reflect the sense of crisis and instability gripping the kingdom. Later dramatic scenes feature formal, symmetrical compositions that suggest the highly regimented protocol dictated by royal tradition.
The corridors that connect various parts of the palace are designed like a maze, and the picture contains lengthy sequences of the characters walking or running through them. Nearly all of these were filmed with an MK-V AR camera-stabilization system. In an e-mail interview, Steadicam/B-camera operator Raymond Lam, HKSC, who also had an MK-V Nexus at his disposal, discussed the benefits of the AR system: “The corridors in the palace are quite narrow and built with vertical pillars and lots of horizontal lines, and the actors had to make sharp 90-degree turns. It wasn’t possible to take the breakaway walls apart for the traveling shots because we were seeing into all the long corridors [at once], although we did remove sections of the walls for static shots. I couldn’t use a rickshaw to follow the actors. Instead, I had to walk or run forward and backward with them.
“With all the horizontal and vertical reference lines [in the production design], it is very noticeable if the camera-stabilization system is off-level, especially when making those sharp, quick turns. The AR has a computer sensor and motor to keep the camera level, which really helped with these shots. Furthermore, the camera automatically revolves because it is mounted in a round cage. You can go from low-mode to mid-mode to high-mode without needing to reconfigure the camera. It’s like wearing a stabilized mini-jib on your body. I was using an MK-V sled and four-stage post with the AR so I could get ultra-low to follow the actors’ feet. Quite a few low-angle shots of galloping horses were shot this way, too; for those, I was sitting on a four-wheel-drive vehicle.”
The production used a Flying Cam to get some tricky overhead shots, including shots of the empress’ warriors storming the palace during an attempted coup-d’état. “The Flying Cam flew over the soldiers as they were assaulting the palace,” says Zhao. “At one point, it appears to fly under an awning, which is actually the great gate leading into the courtyard.”
The assault sequence involved a thousand extras and five cameras. Zhao, who operated the A camera for most of the shoot, says the main camera was on a Mini-Scorpio remote head on a 30 foot MovieBird telescopic crane. “It was set up in the middle of the [courtyard] to cover moving shots. Two cameras were then set on each side [of the courtyard], one on a high platform, and the other on the ground with a wide-angle lens. Two more cameras were covering actors in medium and close-up shots.”
Given the palace’s massive size, most night exteriors were shot day for night to avoid the time and expense of setting up the necessary lights. The production also encountered weather problems. “We had a typhoon coming our way when we were shooting the exterior night scenes in the courtyard,” recalls Lam. “The actors were on a tightly fixed schedule and we did not have any backup sets, so we had to keep shooting. Xiaoding reduced the frontlight and used the contrast between the foreground and background to create the mood of the scene. He had to use high angles to frame out the sky so viewers wouldn’t see the raindrops!”
Zhao worked with production designer Tingxiao Huo when it came to designing lighting for the palace interiors. Many rooms feature decorative columns with lights built into them; some spaces feature as many as 80 columns. “We had 150 40-watt tungsten bulbs in each column on dimmer control,” says Zhao. “The columns were somewhat transparent; they were made of resin in an attempt to imitate the appearance of ancient tiles. These column lights provided atmospheric lighting only. We required other units on the actors.”
Soft lighting was used on all the actresses. Zhao favored Rosco 3030 grid cloth and 3032 light grid, as well as a white diffusion material made by Arri in the U.K. that he refers to as “rice paper.” He explains, “We bounced light, with the rice paper in front of it, into foam board, thus creating a soft-light effect. We created a contrast to that by throwing shadows onto the actors with black foam board.” Overall ambience was provided by lanterns with 2K bulbs and “rice paper” diffusion hung from the ceilings.
One scene finds Prince Wan (Ye Liu) lying in bed, recovering from a self-inflicted wound, beneath roughly 60 paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Replicas of the lanterns that once hung in the real palace, the practicals each contained a 300-watt tungsten bulb, and all were wired to a dimmer board. They provided overall ambience, while a few small units were used for the actors.
Zhao says the extensive use of telephoto lenses was “particularly tough for the focus pullers — the main ones were Yingxuan Wang and Meng Luo — because most scenes were shot with minimal lighting and the aperture had to be wide open. Furthermore, I never limit the actors’ movements. Instead, I demand that my focus pullers follow the performers. It was a tough job and they did exceptionally well.”
The final shot of Golden Flower begins with a poisonous mixture that the emperor has forced his wife to drink being flung into the air and spilling onto the center of a large table. The liquid stains the wood in the shape of a flower. Zhao picks up the story from there: “We fade everything to black-and-white except the stain, which slowly transforms into a red chrysanthemum. It looks like fresh blood. This color transition expresses the idea of the opulent surface being peeled off. All the glory and power is gone, leaving only the evil to continue.”