Possessing neither Hero’s political charge nor House of Flying Daggers’ swoon-worthy romantic roundelays, Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower feels a tad slight, its stab at Shakespearean court intrigue and tragedy primarily kept buoyant by hyper-ostentatious visual pageantry and the delicious hysteria of Gong Li. In a fictional kingdom in 10th-century China during the Tang dynasty, an Empress (Li) discovers that the medicine her Emperor husband (Chow Yun-Fat) proscribes she take every two hours has been laced with a poisonous black fungus that will soon drive her mad. As she’s also distraught over the end of her affair with stepson Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye) – who’s involved in a tryst with the daughter (Li Man) of the court’s doctor (Ni Dahong) – the Empress cooks up a Machiavellian revenge plot with her loyal son Prince Jai (Jay Chou) whose ripple effects eventually lead to deceit, murder and incest. Aiming for the operatic – no surprise given the director’s plans to stage an historical Chinese opera in New York this December – Yimou’s martial arts melodrama is rarely emotionally fulfilling, its enchantment mostly derived from its ornate sets and combat-heavy set pieces, the latter of which occasionally boast shaky CG but, as with a Two Towers-ish battlefield sequence, have a balletic grace. Curse of the Golden Flower’s real centerpiece, however, is Li, her increasingly insane Empress – whether commandingly ingesting her toxic remedy without looking at her legion of servants, or grandly sweating and shuddering due to its effects – proving so over-the-top imperial that she almost singlehandedly elevates the film’s heightened drama into something epic.