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The Banquet

(left) Zhang Ziyi and GE You, and (right) Zhou Xun and Daniel Wu.
  AKA: Legend of the Black Scorpion
  Chinese: 夜宴
Year: 2006  
Director: Feng Xiaogang  
  Producer Wang Zhongjun, John Chong
  Writer: Qiu Gangjian, Sheng Heyu
  Action: Yuen Woo-Ping
  Cast: Zhang Ziyi, Ge You, Daniel Wu, Zhou Xun, Ma Jingwu, Huang Xiaoming
  The Skinny: Artfully made, beautifully staged, and ultimately rather cold. Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet gets the artifice right, delivering a visual experience that's predictably elaborate and beautiful. However, the characters and emotions never seem to soar. Aesthetically, this is a better film than most, but looks aren't everything.
by Kozo:

Yet another highly-regarded Mainland Chinese director goes for international acclaim with The Banquet, a lavish costume drama set in 10th century Ancient China. For his first attempt at this genre, Feng Xiaogang enlists the world's most popular Chinese actress, Zhang Ziyi, plus he adds the required dose of flying martial arts, courtesy of master choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping. Feng also calls upon composer Tan Dun and art director Tim Yip, both veterans of a little movie called Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. With these sort of people attached to the film, Feng has created what amounts to a cinema guarantee. The Banquet promises high-quality spectacle, and indeed, expectations have been enormous from salivating cineastes and drooling Zhang Ziyi fanboys alike. Feng delivers on the spectacle; The Banquet is a feast for the eyes, and features impressive sets, costumes, and atmosphere. But for an actual time at the movies, perhaps even The Promise may be more entertaining.

Zhang Ziyi stars as the young Empress Wan, who once upon a time was in love with Crown Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu). However, instead of marrying the Prince, Wan became betrothed to his father, The Emperor, who subsequently died under mysterious circumstances. The culprit is reportedly his brother, Li (Ge You), who inherits the throne and his hot young wife - and he seems to enjoy both pretty heavily, especially during the much-publicized massage sequences featuring Zhang Ziyi's famously uncredited body double. Li is threatened by Wu Luan, who's off hanging with a white-masked theater troupe, and sends a bunch of royal assassins to off him before he can attempt to reclaim the throne. But Wan is concerned for her former love/former stepson/current nephew, and sends warriors to protect him; during the ensuing actor bloodbath, the warriors do just enough to help Wu Luan escape.

Wu Luan returns to the palace, where he reunites with his former girlfriend/former stepmother/current aunt, and sees firsthand that his uncle has usurped his father's place. Wu Luan also meets up with his current flame Qing (Zhou Xun), a pure sweetheart who doesn't mind that her true love is eternally moody over his crappy family dynamics. Predictably, Li is upset that Wu Luan has returned, and shows it by trying to kill him during a staged duel, attempting to exile him again, and just acting mean to him in an offhand, high-handed manner. But Li has other problems; some of his subjects think that he's an usurper, and some even plot against him. Meanwhile, Wan's place in all of this is unknown. Is she still enamored of Wu Luan, and is she grooming him to reclaim the throne? Or is there something more self-serving and sinister going on in her devious little head? And will Wu Luan ever do more than just brood?

Wu Luan never really does more than just act upset, pace moodily, or display his ire through indirect means - which is fine, because he's Hamlet. The Banquet is a loose adaptation of the classic William Shakespeare play, and Hamlet is supposed to be a melancholy, borderline wishy-washy person with almost no forward momentum. Daniel Wu does a decent job of brooding, but Wu Luan never registers that deeply, probably because he's not even the film's central character. It's Empress Wan who takes on the central role in this web of deceit, lust, and potential betrayal - which is fine, because it puts Zhang Ziyi and her impressive bone structure front and center. Still, Empress Wan comes off as distant and undeveloped, and Zhang struggles to carry the film. One reason for this may be Zhang's age. A cooly conniving character like Empress Wan needs an actress with a bit more seasoning, and Zhang Ziyi is still a very young-seeming twenty-seven years of age.

However, a bigger problem may simply be the film itself, which excels at aesthetically pleasing drama, but doesn't really find a way to convey any real emotion to the audience. The Banquet is presented in a conspicuously confined way, much like its stage-restricted inspiration. The sets and art direction are spectacular, but do little more than dress up each dialogue and gesture-heavy scene with obvious artifice. The Banquet feels very much like an ornate theater drama, where everything is perfectly arranged and everyone impeccably mannered. Even the people with murderous intent conduct themselves politely - to the point where they allow loved ones to die before finally acting with any sort of passion. It's all very beautiful in its restraint, but it's also very artificial and slow. The actors speak in measured tones, and even Yuen Woo-Ping's elaborate action scenes are hampered by an overabundance of slow-motion that makes them seemingly go on forever. The action also feels perfunctory and even unnecessary. Given its themes of desire and deception, The Banquet could have been told without any martial arts whatsoever, much less the flying kung-fu variety.

Director Feng Xiaogang is mainly known for populist filmmaking, and though The Banquet strays from Feng's usual genre (modern comedies), the film does reflect his commercial sensibilities. It's just that the target audience here may be completely different than the audiences that flocked to his previous films. Instead of a satirical comedy that plays to local (read: Mainland Chinese) audiences, The Banquet is a member of that suddenly popular Asian Cinema genre: the indulgent, overproduced costume epic aimed at a completely non-Chinese audience many thousands of miles away. The Banquet doesn't try to be as epic as its contemporaries, but its production is so polished and programmed for international acclaim that it ultimately detracts. The filmmakers follow the genre playbook and go for opulence and elegance, and the result is a film that never seems to surpass its obvious commercial or artistic aspirations. The Banquet is predictably gorgeous, but also somewhat cold.

The performances are largely good. Daniel Wu and Zhang Ziyi are fine, though both could have benefited from more developed characters. Zhou Xun is angelic and affecting as the pure-as-snow Qing, but her character is simplistic to the point of annoyance. Ge You turns in the film's best performance as Emperor Li, and brings devious intelligence and some sorely needed wit to the proceedings. However, his character ultimately loses credibility, because it's hard to believe that such a smart guy would attach himself to so many people who are angling to betray him.

Then again, there's only one way this movie can end. The film's climax takes place at an elaborate banquet, where all the players come together to resolve their loaded vendettas. At this point, the fates of everyone involved are all but assured - and not just because of the ending of Shakespeare's original play. This is a Chinese film; deceit and deception cannot go unpunished. With that handy rule in place, the film's ultimate twists and turns become stale and predictable. At some point, they should start giving screenplay credit to Chinese censors.

Still, if it's not too late to say so, The Banquet does deliver on its superficial promises quite well. The costumes, sets, and actors (save perhaps Ge You) are eye candy par excellence, and Yuen Woo-Ping's action is entertaining despite its numbing elegance. Some of the intimate scenes possess a surprising erotic charge, and there's also fun to be had in the "spot the Shakespeare" game that any loose adaptation of the Bard's work affords. Any film that uses Shakespeare as its blueprint possesses the tools for effective drama, and The Banquet does benefit from the classic conflicts at the heart of its lavishly-produced exterior.

Superficially, The Banquet is much more successful than Chen Kaige's cartoonishly excessive The Promise, in that it delivers an artful and consistent experience free of the audience giggles and "What the hell?" exclamations that The Promise frequently earned. But The Banquet can't surpass its cold exterior, and possesses passions that never seem to ignite. The Promise may be worthy of derision, but its flamboyant badness still has the power to shock and even awe. No shock or awe arises as a result of The Banquet. Overall, the movie feels like just another entry into the international distribution sweepstakes. Had it been released before, say, House of Flying Daggers, The Banquet might feel more novel. Unfortunately, it wasn't. (Kozo 2006)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Megastar / Media Asia
2-DVD Special Edition
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin and Cantonese Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
Various Extras
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

images courtesy of Media Asia Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen