First things first: Go watch it pronto (see official website here). It is so good if I'm not going to Davao tomorrow I would probably be watching it again. The story is about Gong Li's empress being slowly poisoned by Chow Yun Fat's emperor because she is sleeping with the emperor's favorite son and crown prince. The empress, in an imperial power struggle, solicits the help of her own talented son played by Jay Chou, asking him to command an army in rebellion againt his own father.
The story is like a Chinese Oedipus Rex (there's incest, father-son struggle, a kingdom to gain and lose although I bet Jocasta didn't look quite as good as Gong Li) and the palace eunuchs act like some Greek chorus monitoring the passage of time.
SPOILER: Just about everybody ends up dead at the end except for Chow Yun Fat's emperor. On whose shoulders then lay the onus for the tragic ending? I find Gong Li's character despicable: She sleeps with her own stepson and continually seduces him. To lure her own biological son to fighting his own father, she was also economical with the truth: She merely said that the emperor was poisoning her and never told him about her incestous relationship with the crown prince. Had she told that bit of truth, I doubt if Jay Chou's Prince Jai would have led the rebellion. Like in any great tragedy, a small piece of truth unshared proved the undoing of everybody.
Although it was Gong Li's transgression that started the tragedy ball rolling, the different members of the imperial family had their own sins and faults. The emperor was championing natural law at the beginning (filial piety, loyalty), but he also killed his third son in anger. The only untainted character was that of Prince Jai, who, as far as his knowledge is concerned, merely defended his mother.
During the great massacre of ten thousand soldiers at the end though, I was thinking, "Why cant' Jay Chou with a whole army with him manage to storm the same palace Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung briskly invaded in Hero?" And is the art film Gong Li too stately to do onscreen martial arts? Would have loved to see her whacking Chow Yun Fat like feisty Jade Fox. Also, come to think of it, Gong Li's palpitations and dizziness probably wouldn't be so bad if only the Tang Dynasty had White Flower.
Curse of the Golden Flower is a great movie, but, I must admit, Hero is still my all-time favorite.