Banquet, The (aka Legend of the Black Scorpion)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/09/07 15:33:37

"Imagine transplanting 'Hamlet' to China and making Queen Gertrude the star."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Even in an age where period martial-arts epics have been made by the likes of Ang Lee, Kaige Chen, and Zhang Yimou, "The Banquet" stands out as high-gloss. Much of the behind-the-scenes crew worked on "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", and they've built the largest set ever used for a Chinese film. Executive producer Yuen Woo-ping handles fight choreography, and there are five featured soloists and singers on Tan Dun's score. Director Feng Xiaogang is going all out.

Such opulence demands a worthy story, and writers Qiu Gangjian and Sheng Heyu opt to transplant Hamlet to a particularly turbulent period of Chinese history. Although the basics remain the same - Emperor Li (You Ge) has seized his brother's throne and married his queen, Crown Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) tries to expose his uncle's evil by gauging his reaction to a play that recreates the murder, Li sends Wu Luan into an exile from which he is not to return, and then final, bloody resolution at a banquet - several intriguing changes have been made. Gone are the ghost of the prince's father, his faithful friend Horatio, and the less faithful Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Where Queen Gertrude was a vaguely complicit figure in Shakespeare's plan, Zhang Ziyi's Empress Wan is at the center of everything, and having her be the prince's young stepmother makes for a big change in the relationship.

And it's a good one. Although it borders on sacrelige to suggest that Shakespeare in general and Hamlet in particular can be improved upon, there aren't many changes I'd want taken back. Wu Luan's fascination with actors and acrobats is now an integral part of his character - he has chosen to spend his time studying the arts, and it's made some think he is not cut out to be Emperor. Qing (Xun Zhou), the Ophelia character, is just as hopelessly linked to the prince, but it feels more like true love, at least from her end; she's strong and noble enough to do more than drown heartbroken offstage. Oddly, she's a stronger character in part because instead of feeling like she's there as an obligatory love interest until her death motivates Laertes, there's a little more depth to her relationship with Wu Luan because of Wan's presense.

Wan is probably the best role Zhang Ziyi has ever had - though she's starred in several movies, she's never really carried one, at least not like this. There are a lot of things in play for Little Wan - she's very young (three years younger than her stepson), and will have other characters and the audience believe she's swept up by events, but she's also ambitious, grew up in the court and married two Emperors. She knows how to survive and get ahead. There's a shared past with Wu Luan that manifests as thawing around him and cruel jealousy around Qing. It's not just that Zhang is able to present herself as a force to be reckoned with rather than just a pretty face; it's that she's able to sell us on Wan having these contradictory motivations and the force of will to act on them.

The rest of the cast does a fine enough job keeping up with her. Daniel Wu isn't just there for his skill with a sword; he make for a properly angry and self-righteous prince. You Ge is properly regal and ruthless as the Emperor, and Xun Zhou makes Qing able to draw strength from a blind love. Huang Xiaoming draws attention as Yin Sun, the Laertes character - he's probably the closest thing the film has to a truly noble and heroic character.

But it's Daniel Wu who gets most of the cool action scenes, mostly squaring off against a large number of Imperial Guards. Though there's a fair amount of wire work, it's not the beautiful, graceful action of many high-class wuxia movies; Yuen Woo-ping's fights here are hard-hitting and bloody. They're also where composer Tan Dun gives noted pianist Lang Lang a spotlight, and the result is remarkable. The piano has properties of both a string and a percussion instrument, and its use in the action scenes highlights both the violence and the melodrama of the situation.

Feng doesn't shy away from the melodrama in the story. It's hard to blame him, as the double meanings that Zhang Ziyi gives every line are delicious. Despite the bloody action and scheming, the movie may come off as a little pretentious to some: There are several performance numbers worked into the story, and they're kind of abstract at times - the folks coming for the swordfights may not be quite so keen on the interpretive dance. Also, for all the good work the filmmakers did in reconceiving Hamlet, the big banquet scene from which this film gets its title has been a source of unintentional black comedy for about four hundred years - that poison just gets around too well.

Those weren't huge issues for me, although I'm an admitted sucker for Shakespeare who found looking at what Feng and company changed and kept the same a fun game which added to my enjoyment. If you fall anywhere near this category, "The Banquet" will probably be a treat.

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