REVIEW: Blu-ray Only Release: The Banquet

Film: The Banquet
Release date: 2nd August 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 126 mins
Director: Xiaogang Feng
Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Daniel Wu, Sun Zhou, You Ge, Jingwu Ma
Genre: Action/Drama/History/War
Studio: Metrodome
Format: Blu-ray
Country: China

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet The Banquet, directed by Feng Xiaogang, is a lavishly produced tale of incest, corruption and revenge during the fall of the Tang Dynasty, a period known as the 'Five Dynasties of Ten Kingdoms'. A web of intrigue has been woven within the walls of the Imperial Palace that ultimately leads to tragedy and bloodshed.

China 907 BC: Prince Wuluan (Daniel Wu) has decided to study the performing arts in remote woodlands away from the Imperial Palace after his sweetheart, Little Wan, (Ziyi Zhang), marries his father the Emperor, and thus becoming Empress.

She sends word to Wuluan that his father has been killed, presumably by a black scorpion, and his Uncle Li (You Gi) has now taken the throne, taking her as his own Empress.

Unbeknown to Wan, Li orders a secret onslaught on Wuluan, but despite the slaughter of all Wuluan’s fellow performers, whose faces are hidden behind white impassive masks - making it difficult to know which one is the Prince - Wuluan makes a narrow escape. Convinced they have killed Wuluan, the steel-welding Imperial Guards return to notify the Emperor of their “success”.

Believing Wan to be responsible for his father’s death, Wuluan returns to the palace to confront her, but Wan reassures Wuluan that it was Emperor Li who killed his father.

Once the Emperor learns that Wuluan is still alive, another attempt on the young Prince’s life is made, only to be saved yet again by the Empress’ intervention.

The Emperor decides to hold a lavish banquet and orders all those that don’t attend to be put to death. The Empress sees the event of grandeur as the perfect opportunity to rid the world of the Emperor. But as with all Shakespearean tragedies, all does not end well…

The Banquet is a visually spectacular costume drama, which incorporates balletic fight scenes with lashings of blood and grandiose set pieces, as well as impressive crane shots used to good effect during scenes within the walls of the Imperial Palace.

The central figure in the story is the multi-faceted Empress Wan, played to great effect by the talented international superstar Ziyi Zhang. The Empress is a complex character with a multiple persona, which is subtly revealed by the adornment of her vibrant extravagant costumes that she wears at specific moments. Colours divulge her characteristics: gowns of reddish-purple are worn as she demonstrates her powerful malicious side; whilst yellow, her chosen colour of attire during intimate moments with the Prince, is worn at times when she can be gentle and most true to herself. The role of the Empress was originally intended for a more developed actress, someone of Gong Li’s calibre, for example. But once Zhang agreed to come on board, Xiaogang was enthusiastic towards her suggestions on how she should approach the role, which led to major changes in the script to suit her specifications.

Because of this alteration with the leading actress, the film has come under fire from some critics who deem the role of the Empress too demanding for someone, at that time, not yet fully developed. If Gong Li or even Maggie Cheung did fill the Empress’ shoes, this would indeed command an amendment with the other major players. Although this could have given the film more substance, Zhang’s portrayal of the Empress, as well as the visuals, is the film’s saving grace; being that the decision to make the Empress only four years younger than the Prince actually works, it’s just a shame that Wu couldn’t have played the Prince with a little more ardour.

High praise must also go to actress/singer Xun Zhou for her portrayal of the virtuous Qing, who is deeply in love with Wuluan, and is the only character we can warm to. She is the innocent one within this tragic entanglement of love and rivalry, and receives our full sympathy – a well-deserved winner of the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role. She also sang the closing theme tune, which was nominated for a Golden Horse Award for Best Original Film Song.

The overall intellect and style of The Banquet is very theatrical, and is relatively in keeping with Shakespeare’s original vision. On the downside, the western-influenced soundtrack falls short of being appealing, and is quite unforgettable, only managing to be commanding on occasion.

There is also an over use of slow motion filming. This technique works well with certain scenes, such as those of galloping horses and the wirework fight sequences, but is over-applied at other times, especially during the torture and slaughter scene of General Yin Sun (Xiaoming Huang). What should have been a brutal and unsettling sight for us to witness, consequently became an exaggeratedly dramatic stage show, which diminished the overall effect.

The Banquet is by no means a masterpiece, but it is a gloriously spectacular work of visual art with some fine performances, mainly from two of China’s brightest stars - Zhang Ziyi and Xun Zhou. Sadly, it’s hard to feel any compassion for the three main characters, as they are often cold and callous, putting a distance between them and the viewer. SLP

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