Friday, October 20, 2006

The Banquet (2006)

The Banquet (Feng Xiaogang, 2006)
Mandarin Title: Ye yan

The Banquet, Feng Xiaogang's Shakespearean pageant has been harshly criticized by critics and audiences of its homeland China which favored Zhang Yimou's similar costume drama to represent it in the Oscars foreign film race. Instead, Hong Kong, which co-produced the feature of the mainland director, submitted it to represent the former colony to the Oscars. The biggest critical target was Zhang Ziyi, the central character of the film, the Lady Macbeth-like woman of ambition who was quick to marry the usurping brother (Ge You) of his then husband, the emperor, who also happens to be the father of her childhood sweetheart, Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu). Zhang was criticized of being miscasted as a conniving empress; the role which was claimed to be more suited for a more mature actress. Aside from the miscast, The Banquet is further criticized for being dragging, too opulent and operatic, with fight scenes being sacrificed for endless dialogues which were written with a poetic literary quality that is bound to alienate viewers.

I thought the criticisms were mostly unfair. I found The Banquet as more than satisfying --- a gorgeous loose cinematic adaptation of the Bard's "Hamlet" which is in equal parts an intriguing tale of blue-blooded treachery and a gushing and moving portrait of the corruptive quality of power. Aside from the family of usurpers and usurpers-to-be, the Emperor's minister (Ma Jingwu) and his son (Huang Xiaoming) join the mix by plotting to steal the throne. In true Shakespearean tradition, the minister's daughter (Zhou Xun) represents the tragic moral center; the innocent moving spirit who is victimized by the clashing sides in the battle for the throne.

Feng used to make comedy films. He has established himself as a bankable commercial director. His last film A World Without Thieves (2004) was a box-office hit in both mainland China, Hong Kong, and other Chinese-speaking territories. It seems that Feng is trying to use The Banquet to reach Western audiences, using a familiar tale of passionate intrigue within the grandiosely adorned courts of ancient China. The production is astounding. Feng borrows the production team behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000). Tim Yip builds an extravagant palace that is detailed to the last little statue that adorns its cavernous hallways. The costume designs are similarly brilliant and creates a dream-like beauty to this quasi-historical fantasy (which reminds me of Akira Kurosawa's colorful Ran (1985), also an adaptation of one of William Shakespeare's works). Tan Dun scores the film with something more melodic than his scores for both Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which were more rhythmic. Tan Dun's score enunciates the film's visual opulence with his equally operatic musical compositions.

Perhaps The Banquet merely suffered from the backlash of abysmal wuxia products from directors whose previous films were of artistic merit (Chen Kaige's The Promise (2005) and Tsui Hark's Seven Swords (2005) come to mind). The genre has always been an excuse for these directors to show off their indulgent sides, and at times, the indulgence overtakes the depth and worthiness of the features. I believe Feng's decision to update Shakespeare into a Chinese quasi-historical epic, instead of cooking up a brand-new tale of mythic proportions, did well for him. The stylized acting, the huge sets, the slow motion movements, and the melodramatic turns, fit the material quite well. No complaints here.

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