Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week looking for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent… this week we’ve got a dinner date with Shakespeare. By way of China.
Ang Lee’s phenomenal Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon kicked off a decade of similarly beautiful wuxia epics with films like House Of Flying Daggers, Hero, The Promise, and Curse Of the Golden Flower. Lee’s film remains the best of the bunch by far, but one that comes close to equaling it in visual and aural beauty is The Banquet. It lacks the overwhelming emotion and heartbreaking romance of Lee’s Academy Award winning film, but it does have glorious imagery and cinematography, the always exquisite Zhang Ziyi, and a fine literary pedigree in a story based loosely on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Oh, it also has a lame Americanized title courtesy of the Weinsteins…
“Is there anything more poisonous than this?”
“The human heart.”
It’s 907 AD China, and the Teng dynasty has fallen into ruin. (The nearby Ovaltine dynasty is doing quite well though, thank you very much.) The emperor has died, the possible victim of foul play at the hands of his brother Li (You Ge), and his son Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) returns to find his stepmother has already remarried… to that same brother. Not that Luan should be complaining… his stepmom, Empress Wan, is played by the beautiful and deceptively talented Zhang Ziyi. Luan suspects his uncle of the murder and begins to orchestrate a revenge, but the film’s focus moves away from him and onto Wan instead. Her actions, betrayals, and motivations are the center of the film and offer a varied look into this oft-told tale.
Compared to the other films mentioned above The Banquet (its original and far more appropriate title) is closer to pure drama than it is to martial arts action extravaganza. There are sporadic fight scenes, some of them fairly impressive, all of them making extensive use of wire work, but they’re spread thinly throughout the two hour film. Wu gets to showcase some of his skill in an exhibition fight before the royal court, and it’s a solidly choreographed battle between him and several soldiers thanks in part to Yuen Woo-ping who choreographs the film. That scene, an assault by soldiers armed with crossbows who explode up and out of the snow, and a slaughter that occurs in a large outdoor theater complete with huge bamboo ramp are probably the three standout action set-pieces, but there’s another worth highlighting. A court elder who voices dissatisfaction with the new emperor is executed via soldiers with poles… used to beat and knock him back and forth for several minutes without ever allowing him to touch the ground.
As the core of the film Ziyi truly shines in the complicated and conflicted role of young empress bewitched by power and loss. Her emotions move through visible stages and she makes all of them believable. Wu is a solid but unimpressive actor so it’s for the best that Luan isn’t the focus here, but he does impress in his handful of fight scenes. Zhou Xun is a standout as Qing, the girl whose unrequited love for Luan leads to a tragic outcome. She’s the Ophelia equivalent, and as with the original play she’s one of the only true victims in the entire tale. Ge rounds out the impressive performances as the possibly murderous uncle.
The film’s true star though and the number one reason to watch is pure surface level beauty. Sumptuous visuals and an aurally seductive score combine for such a strong sensory experience that it often overpowers both the familiar story and the sparse lapses into action. Long shots of swaying trees and elaborately-built sets and structures fill the screen with such zen-like serenity that will leave you focused as much on the design and surroundings as on the characters and story.
The Banquet didn’t get as much attention in the US as the titles above received, but fans of the genre will find much to enjoy here. It plays out at a much more deliberate pace than most and gives more attention to some of the unavoidable tragedies inherent in human nature. Some, because unlike Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon there are no characters here to draw us in emotionally. We instead get strictly the darker or more impulsive sides. There’s fun to be had with the handful of fight scenes, but they may be far too infrequent for action junkies interested in little else. But hey… Ziyi takes a bath in a pool filled with rose petals. So there’s that at least.
Legend Of the Black Scorpion is available on Blu-ray from Dragon Dynasty. The film is strikingly beautiful in any format, but this newly released Blu-ray is by far the best way to view it.