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Over two hours of running time, the most extravagant costumes, eye-catching opulent sets, elaborate fight choreography, and currently the most famous Chinese actress in the world as your star. And yet, director Xiaogang Feng’s “The Banquet” still managed to dull the senses, rot the emotion, and make one pray for an ending — any ending, as long as there is an ending. Which isn’t to say “The Banquet” is a bad movie; it’s just a terribly long, uninteresting, and highly predictable affair, and most definitely undeserving of the attention and money spent to make it, and now, to market it.
It has been widely publicized that “The Banquet” is a Chinese re-imagining (at least in framework) of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (with more than a little dash of “Macbeth” thrown in for good measure), and as we all know, the Bard wasn’t exactly known for writing plays that were barrels of laughs. Buoyed by tremendous production values and a lengthy (and at times, delayed) shooting schedule, it is amazing how lacking the final product is. Surely, one can’t be blamed for expecting something grand considering all the money sunk into the production and the talent the filmmakers had at their disposal.
“The Banquet” is a Mainland Chinese film that stars Zhang Ziyi as Empress Wan, who as the film opens, is a widower after her husband, the Emperor, was killed under mysterious circumstances. The Emperor’s brother Li (You Ge) quickly usurps the throne, leaving Wan to plot revenge — but for whose benefit? Meanwhile, the dead emperor’s son (and Wan’s older than her by three years son-in-law) Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) is in the woods practicing performance arts. A melancholy fellow, Wu Luan doesn’t accept his father’s untimely death well, which may explain why Li has already dispatched assassins to deal with this potential headache. Wu Luan escapes assassination, thanks in no small part to Wan’s interference, and returns to the Palace in search of justice.
From there, “The Banquet” proceeds at a snail’s pace, and seems content to concern itself with the motivations — hidden, layered, and secret — of its characters. Empress Wan’s many plot machinations, in particular, takes up much of the film’s focus. Does she truly love Wu Luan, or is this about ascending to the throne herself? This question, and others, continue to be investigated throughout “The Banquet’s” two-hour plus running time, leading to various manipulations of various people, including the long-suffering Minister Yin (Jingwu Ma) and his hot-tempered son, General Yin (Xiaoming Huang). Further complicating matters is the Minister’s daughter, Qing (Xun Zhou), who was originally promised to Wu Luan before his little sojourn into the woods.
It quickly becomes obvious that the reports of “The Banquet’s” ties to Shakespeare’s works were in good faith, as the film certainly takes its cue from those tragic tales for much of its subplots. As a result, there is little reason to expect anything at the end of “The Banquet” (the events culminating during the titular banquet, of course) other than the expected deaths, double crosses, murders, and various deaths by poison. Predictably, this is very much the case. Which leaves the audience to enjoy the “getting there” part, since the “there” part has already been figured out before the opening titles even roll onscreen. Unfortunately for Feng and company, getting to the end of “The Banquet” is a tedious task, with pointless forays into the household of Minister Yin and his odiously pure — nay, unfathomably perfect — daughter.
“The Banquet” was directed by Xiaogang Feng, a noted and commercially successful Mainland Chinese director with a number of domestic hits to his credit. “The Banquet” marks Feng’s first attempt at international recognition, and he has chosen wisely in the subject matter. With the recent successes of Chinese period actioners like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Hero”, and “House of Flying Daggers”, “The Banquet” would seem the perfect choice to make one’s international debut. Unfortunately, while “The Banquet” has its share of elaborately choreographed martial arts sequences (once again provided by action master Yuen Woo Ping), none of it seems “right” for the film. And given the film’s singularly moody tone, the action is akin to throwing a rowdy bar fight into the middle of a stage play. Even when the swords come out, Feng maintains such a low level of intensity throughout that even the ridiculous spray of fake CGI blood come across as impossibly muted.
The cast of “The Banquet” does well given the material, with Mainland star You Ge (“A World Without Thieves”) giving an intriguing turn as the ambiguous, seemingly erratic Emperor Li. Hong Kong star Daniel Wu seems out of place with his contemporary good looks, and the actor is terribly burdened by superficial characterization that renders the part of Wu Luan mostly lifeless, made worst because the character wears masks for half of the film. One gets the feeling that any number of Hong Kong heartthrobs could have stepped into the role without missing a beat. As the film’s undisputed star power, Zhang Ziyi doesn’t have the gravitas for the role, and one imagines that someone of Gong Li’s stature could have been twice as effective as the Empress Wan. To her credit, Zhang brings an intense erotic quality to the film that makes the nearly motionless first hour easier to stomach.
With its visually stunning aesthetics and overwhelmingly tragic atmosphere, “The Banquet” should do reasonably well with international arthouse viewers looking for a big budget Chinese melodrama to sink their teeth into. Those seeking high adventure on the scale of “Hero” or “Flying Daggers” will be disappointed, as although Feng and company takes time out for swordplay, this is not a movie about swordplay, and the brief action only serves as momentary diversions from the film’s linear march toward its inevitable conclusion.
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