THE BANQUET (2006)
It is 10th century China during the Five Dynasties Period. When the Emperor is murdered, his brother Li usurps the thrown and takes his wife Empress Wan as his own. Prince Wu, fearing for his life, and knowing that he will never have the heart of Wan, flees the palace and politics in favor of a life of theatre and song. Li fears that Wu will someday return and try to take the throne for himself, so he dispatches his loyal guards to assassinate him. Wan though, who was originally to marry Wu, sends her own dispatch to protect Wu. When Wu survives the assassination, he returns to the royal palace to face Li, who he believes is responsible for his father's death.
Upon returning, Wu finds a divided fracture of men who remain loyal to his deceased father and a royal court who are dedicated to Li in so much that they wish to keep their heads on their shoulders. As emotional tension rises, and with each party trying to get the better of the other through political trickery and dedication to traditions, Emperor Li forces Prince Wu into a position that he must accept, but will ultimately lead to his death. And with Wu believed out of the picture forever, Li confidently sets up a midnight banquet for his entire court against his chamberlain's warning that it is not an auspicious evening.
Taking on Akira Kurosawa's penchant for turning Shakespearian tragedies into period swordplay epics, debut writers Qiu Gang-Jian and Sheng He-Yu loosely adapt "Hamlet" into THE BANQUET, which is helmed by mainland China director Feng Xiao-Gang, who undertakes his biggest challenge yet with this monstrously epic production. While Feng's previous experience dealing with smaller comedies and dramas might give pause in his ability to pull off Qiu and Sheng's script, his main production team, many of whom are being reunited once again after their work on CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON and HERO, has more than enough experience and raw talent to cover any of his blemishes.
The first thing that pops right off the screen as The Banquet begins is the breathtaking beauty of the costumes and scenery courtesy of art director Timmy Yip, whose wonderful previous period work on CROUCHING TIGER and before that the turn-of-the-century ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA III gives him an edge in bringing the biggest set ever created in China to life. Yip's use of color and sweeping fabrics rivals even that of 2002's HERO, and the costume designs are utterly fantastic, even if they are not one hundred percent accurate to the time period. Yip's visual creations are complimented by composer Tan Dun, another veteran of Crouching Tiger, who once again turns to rolling drums and quiet strings to give the auditory presence a film like this requires.
One thing that will no doubt make or break this melodramatic tragedy for many is the first fight sequence which washes across the screen like a slow-flowing river shortly after the movie begins. Master martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping, along with his unstoppable stunt team, bring to the screen what can only be described as the bloodiest ballet ever committed to celluloid. With the assistance of cinematographer Zhang Li, Yuen Wo-Ping slows his fight sequence down to nearly one-half speed, giving each swing of a weapon, each connected kick, and each spray of blood a dreamlike feel. His choreography is beautifully complicated and orchestrated as only one with his knowledge can conduct. While the movements are beautiful to look at, the damage dealt is anything but, as the intense focus on weapons impaling their targets and the force of each blow is only magnified by the film's slower speed.
Yuen's choice to maintain this ethereal motif throughout the film is a bold choice, but one that sets his work here apart from much of his recent fare. While those that are used to seeing his fast and frenetic work in the likes of FIST OF LEGEND and DRUNKEN MASTER 2 or his work on U.S. productions may be disappointed with how slowly his fights play out, this artistic choice can only be described as a parallel to song numbers in a musical. Each fight is a much an mental attack as a physical one, and these master fighters have honed their skills to the point where this is the speed at which they channel that energy and express their emotions.
When the action takes a backseat to the unfolding drama, Feng continues to use cinematographer Li's long fluid sweeps to bring the characters' inner and external struggles to the forefront. As with any period piece, Feng lets each scene slowly unfold so that the sets and costumes can become supporting characters capable of enunciating what is happening. But it is Feng's choice in actors that gives the storyline its core strength. Zhang Ziyi, who plays Empress Wan (a role that was originally intended for Gong Li) performs with a regal power that is a necessity in making the character believable. This is certainly her toughest role yet, and her successful tackling of the character shows that she is becoming a great actress to continue watching. Her counterpart, Daniel Wu, equally breathes the necessary tragic melancholy needed for his Prince Wu to become believable.
While the connection to Hamlet in the most rudimentary sense automatically implies the story's ultimate tragedy, it is Feng Xiao-Gang's placement of all the pieces that creates this successful Eastern adaptation of a Western story.
Read about the movie's U.S. DVD release, which has been renamed LEGEND OF THE BLACK SCORPION, at Geeks Of Doom and pick it up on Amazon now!