It’s hard not to look upon Mainland Chinese director Feng Xiaogang’s latest film “The Banquet” without a certain cynicism, since it in every way seems to be yet another would-be big budget martial arts epic made with the international market in mind. It’s the kind of film Chinese film makers still seem to believe Western audiences are desperate for, despite Chen Kaige’s God-awful “The Promise” having ruined the appetites whetted back in 2000 with Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Matters are not helped by the fact that Feng has said as much in interviews, clearly indicating that “The Banquet” is his attempt to try his hand at the rather vacuous genre, and confirming suspicions that lead actress Zhang Ziyi was cast solely on the basis of her marketability in Western markets.
Aside from any considerations of “The Banquet” itself, this is a real shame, with Feng having been one of the strongest voices in modern Chinese cinema, whose witty contemporary comedies “Cellphone” and “A World without Thieves” have help to combat the enduring stereotype that most Asian films need be period set sagas of doomed heroes. Of course, all of this is largely irrelevant in the face of the fact that the film is awful, being a stilted, bloated mess which crams in cliché and needless visual flair with little regard at coherence or quality, and worse still, which trudges by at a soul destroying, funerary pace.
Although the plot is ostensibly based upon Shakespeare’s immortal Hamlet, the influence of the bard is barely tangible, and the film flounces around like some kind of camp soap opera rather than a tale of ambition and tragedy. The narrative, such as it is, follows Daniel Wu as Prince Wu Luan, whose father the Emperor has been killed and usurped by his scheming uncle Li (Ge You, a comic actor and regular collaborator with Feng) and who returns from exile with a troupe of weird mask wearing performers only to find that Wan (Zhang Ziyi), the woman he loved, is now both the Empress and his step mother.
To cut a long and tedious story short, Wu Luan plots to kill the Emperor, the Emperor does very little apart from looking bemused, Empress Wan changes allegiances and costumes in equal measure, while a poor young girl of obviously limited intelligence called Qing (Zhou Xun) falls in love with the useless prince and fails to make sense of it all. Finally, for no other reason than putting an end to all of this nonsense, the Emperor decides to hold the titular banquet, at which all secrets are revealed, for those few viewers who are still awake at any rate.
Worst amongst the many, many flaws of “The Banquet” is probably the fact that it is one of the slowest films ever made, with almost half of the running time being taken up with scenes of shockingly gratuitous slow motion, which is used for everything from martial arts battles to seemingly innocuous shots of characters doing very little. As a result, the film is not only dull and woefully overlong, but feels excessive and pretentious, despite the fact that it is utterly lacking in any kind of depth, either emotionally or intellectually. Although it could be argued that Feng was aiming for the feel of a play rather than giving the film a theatrical air, this rather gives the impression that he forgot to shout ‘cut’ on too many occasions, or that he fell asleep during the editing process and accidentally knocked the speed dial.
Although there are a few moments of unintentional comedy here and there, the film never reaches the heights of “The Promise” in terms of being enjoyable despite being patently awful. Mostly this is due to it feeling like a completely disparate set of elements which have been hastily thrown together for their supposed commercial appeal alone. Very few aspects of the film compliment each other, from the completely inappropriate and bombastic Western style soundtrack, to the unnecessary insertion of action scenes, most of which come complete with over the top flying and elaborate moves which leave viewers unsure whether the characters are fighting or engaging in impromptu dance sessions.
All of this of course detracts fatally from the central plot, which hung from a very thin thread to begin with, and the final nail comes in the form of the characters themselves, all of whom are dreadfully written, spouting corny modern dialogue and frequently lapsing into inexplicable bouts of hysteria or shameful laziness. It’s very hard to tell who the focus of the film is supposed to be, with the Empress getting most of the screen time, most of which is taken up with wooden pouting and preening in the usual style of the lamentably untalented Zhang Ziyi, who is totally inappropriate in what could have been a half interesting role. However, the plot itself seems to revolve around the prince, who seems to be wholly nonplussed by his supposed quest for vengeance, and who most of the time appears unfortunately to be confused or stoned.
Simply put, there is nothing complimentary to be said for “The Banquet” aside from the fact that it is a handsome looking film, in a vague, historically inaccurate way, with its sets being designed with an eye to effect rather than realism, and with silly costumes which looks as though they have been left over from the “Star Wars” prequels. However, even the film’s look is flawed, hampered by the foolish use of sub-standard computer effects and the howlingly obvious use of body doubles for actress Zhang Ziyi during a good number of scenes. Similarly, it has to be said that though the production looks expensive, it is frequently laughable in its mock-grandiose design. For example, in the case of Wu Luan’s bizarre lounging chair, a huge piece of uncomfortable furniture which also appears to double as a hair-washer, something which again seems to suggest that the sleepy prince has been smoking something he shouldn’t.
Even this odd d’cor is not enough to salvage the film, which sadly offers no entertainment value whatsoever and which flounders on every level. Coming as a great disappointment from one of China’s best directors, “The Banquet” may at least serve to sound the death knell for other such self indulgent, cynically constructed efforts.
Xiaogang Feng (director) / Gangjian Qiu, Heyu Sheng (screenplay)
CAST: Ziyi Zhang …. Empress Wan
Daniel Wu …. Prince Wu Luan
Xun Zhou …. Qing Yin
You Ge …. Emperor Li
Jingwu Ma …. Minister Yin
Xiaoming Huang …. General Yin