Banquet, The (Ye yan)

[img_assist|nid=865|title=The Hamlet-y Banquet|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=421|height=600]
(also released as The Legend of the Black Scorpion, for no good reason)

dir: Xiaogang Feng

A wuxia version of Hamlet sounds like a crazy way to try to sell tickets. It comes as a major surprise that it actually works. The universal themes of treachery, loyalty, love and revenge are easily transferred from the court of the Danish monarchy to the throne room of the Tang Dynasty.

The writers retain the elements from Hamlet that work, discard the rest and make fundamental changes where it suits them, turning the tale into one of court intrigue and romantic deceptions rather than emphasising an indecisive son's desire to avenge his father's murder. Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) is the crown prince in this version, without the madness or the indecisiveness, but his desire for vengeance against his usurper uncle remains the same.

The new Emperor Li (Gou Le) tries to wear his brother's armour, but it is uncomfortable. The armour bleeds from an eye socket just to make sure we understand that something is wrong.

The Crown Prince has been lazing about at a drama school, and the new Emperor's soldiers are sent to provide him with an escort. From the looks of it, they are meant to escort him to hell, since the film begins with a wholesale slaughter. The brutal sword fighting goes on for long enough to give the impression that fight choreography will constitute a majority of the film's running time, but that would be a false assumption. The Banquet is not a fight heavy film; it is far more focussed on being a dark drama, so the lazy comparisons to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or the recent films of Zhang Yimou are not only inaccurate but irritating.

Soldiers dressed more like robots butcher the mask-wearing actors of the school, though a few of the students manage to take out a few of their enemies before expiring. Heads roll, limbs are severed, and CGI showers of blood spray everywhere. It covers everything, which must be hard for the CGI cleaners to clean up.

All the while, the real focus of their attacks has been hiding underwater. Wu Luan makes his way back to the Imperial court, clutching one of the actor's masks along the way. He knows something is rotten in the court of the new emperor, and he intends to set things right.

The Empress Li (Zhang Ziyi) is equal parts Gertrude and Lady Macbeth, just to borrow from another of Shakespeare's plays. She is not Wu Luan's mother in this story, which makes the Oedipal themes of the original play less uncomfortable and the tension between herself and the prince more explicit. Also, her conflict with the film's Ophelia substitute Qing (Xun Zhou) makes more sense.

Zhang Ziyi is here for her beauty and her dramatic abilities, not her fighting abilities, and she acquits herself well. It is almost a surprise to see her tackling a role with such maturity so well, since one generally expects her to be playing her usual limited range of petulant characters.

She and the usurper Emperor have many scenes of dialogue which usually refer to their passion for each other. You never know whether the Empress is telling the truth or whether she is playing the new Emperor for a fool.

It wouldn't be a Hamlet rip-off without a crazy Ophelia, thus Qing fulfils the role of latching on to Wu Luan and looking like she is never going to let go. Thankfully, though she pines for Wu Luan like a stalker with one too many restraining orders on her, she manages not to go completely insane, and plays a more important role in the film than in the source material. Especially for the film's climax.

She and the Empress catfight over Wu Luan, but the Empress has the upper hand. It's hard to stand against someone when they can have you branded and shipped off into slavery at a moment's notice.

Qing's father, one of the chief ministers (Jingwu Ma), and his son (Xiaoming Huang), fulfilling the Polonius and Laertes roles, also have a complicated role to play in the proceedings. They seek to do what is right for the court, but also believe that perhaps it is their time to shine.

For the new Emperor's coronation, Wu Luan is expected to put on a fighting display with the aid of many soldiers just itching to kill him, but instead the scriptwriters revert back to the original story and have Wu Luan put on an improvised play to show the Emperor that he knows how his father died.

The play's the thing, wherein he'll catch the conscience and the yum cha of the king.

The stage is set for a big banquet, where the different characters all believe they'll finally be able to get rid of their enemies, but none of them know just who their true enemies are.

The film, as does the original play, proceeds to its natural conclusion. It doesn't come as a surprise that the ending is little different whether written in 1600 in Elizabethan England or whether it is set during the Tang Dynasty. The manner in which they get to the ending is different, yet quite satisfying in this incarnation.

The film ends on a surprising note, where the person who performs a last action is not revealed. But it doesn't matter, and it serves to underline one of the film's underlying themes about cycles of revenge and the eventual punishment of those who seek to profit from wrongdoing.

The production values are excellent, the set design and scene composition are vivid and beautiful, and serve to complement the drama rather than distract from it. The acting and direction are solid, though some viewers might be put off by the almost flat way most of the dialogue is delivered. For the kind of story and the setting involved, the stateliness is appropriate, but someone expecting balls-to-the-wall action and a certain energy level might be frustrated and eventually filled with murderous rage by the time the ending rolls around.

The Banquet is a mature and enjoyable rendering of an old classic, even if it is a classic from another time and place.

7 Zhang Ziyis doubtless being created in Chinese government cloning factories with the intention of forming an army and taking over the rest of the world out of 10