Imagine “Dallas” or “Dynasty” transported to tenth-century China and you’ll have some idea of what “Curse of the Golden Flower,” Zhang Yimou’s latest martial arts epic, is like. The third time isn’t the charm for Zhang, since “Flower” doesn’t match either “Hero” or “House of Flying Daggers” in its impact. But it’s still a remarkable visual experience, and at times a thrilling one.

The intricate domestic affairs of the Tang dynasty in 928 A.D. is the stuff of the most florid melodrama. The Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) is in a quasi-King Lear position, though with three sons rather than three daughters. The eldest, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), lives in the huge palace with his father and his stepmother the Empress (Gong Li); his own mother, to whose memory he and his father make a point of showing great reverence, died when he was a mere infant. But all is not well at home: the Emperor is progressively poisoning his wife through the agency of the court physician (Ni Dahong) and his daughter Chan (Li Man) in the guise of medicating her for a nervous condition, while the empress has been having an affair with her stepson although he and Chan are secretly enjoying one another’s company with hopes of running away together.

The current Empress has borne her husband the two younger sons. The elder of them, Prince Jai, is warrior whom his father has sent to the front to learn battle technique and whom he tests in single sword combat before warning him not to seek what is not given him. But Prince Jai’s return to the palace coincides with the annual Chrysanthemum Festival for which the Empress has been preparing obsessively, not—one suspects—without some wicked intent. Then there’s the third son, the physically slight Yu (Qin Junjie), whose effort to play peacemaker among the other family members is itself a bit suspicious.

The scorpions-in-a-bottle relationships among the royals are made even more fissionable when the Empress not only catches Wan in a distinctly compromising situation with Chan but is informed by a mysterious intruder of her husband’s homicidal intentions. The revelation of the interloper’s real identity will set off a whole series of intrigues, double and triple crosses, reversals and confrontations—some of them merely emotional but most physical struggles, both one-on-one and en masse. The topper is a grand battle between two huge opposing armies (happily in armor of contrasting colors) on a field of mums in the palace courtyard, making for lots of striking red-on-yellow imagery as great gallons of blood are spilled. By the time everything has settled down, the imperial family’s size has been much reduced—but a crack maintenance crew cleans up the mess in time for the festivities.

It’s quite impossible to take any of this seriously. One can’t care a fig about these characters, whose machinations make the Carringtons and Ewings look like absolute pikers. (The closest cinematic equivalent might be the dysfunctional Plantagenets of “The Lion in Winter,” but even they’re quite restrained beside this crew.) And Zhang accentuates things by encouraging his cast to the highest histrionic pitch; their exaggerated delivery and flamboyant posing recalls the thespian excesses of silent film—or perhaps Eisenstein is a better comparison. Under these circumstances even veterans Chow and Gong seem not much more than pawns on a political chessboard—though he’s mostly impassive and she’s largely hysterical. Their posturing makes this high-stationed family less like human beings than porcelain artifacts—and quite breakable ones at that.

And yet the visual opulence of the world they inhabit is breathtaking. The production design (by Huo Tingxiao), art direction (supervised by Zhao Bin) and costumes (by Yee Chung Man), abetted by the visual effects team supervised by Angela Barson and Chung Chi-hang—since it’s difficult to know where the real ends and the artificially contrived begins—create a world of astonishing vibrancy. The palace interiors, through which the director and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding conduct us in frequent tracking shots, are riots of color and light, and the courtyard, with its bed of flowers, craning balconies and mountains of steps, is an equal wonder. And the battle sequences are impressive, even if they don’t reach the standard of those in Zhang’s earlier films. The individual swordfights are well choreographed, but hardly magical, as some have been; and the final confrontation, while hobbled by too much CGI manipulation, is enormous, of “Lord of the Rings” scope. The best action element, though, involves the Emperor’s special troops, who swing through the air suspended on ropes that appear out of nowhere. It’s an inexplicable but wondrous effect.

So “Curse of the Golden Flower” is, in terms of craft, a mesmerizing visual achievement; and if the overwrought dramatics are like an opera drained of its music, that’s a price you may be willing to pay for the purely sensual pleasure the images afford.