The Banquet Review
A retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, set in 907AD, during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period following the fall of the Tang Dynasty, the latest Chinese flying martial arts costume drama epic certainly has a strong literary source which seems well matched with the government power struggles and court intrigue of a turbulent period in Chinese history. Despite its casting of the best new young talent in Chinese acting however, Feng Xiaogang’s The Banquet never seems to carry the weight demanded of its historical and literary sources.
The Hamlet figure here is Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu), a sensitive and tortured soul who, following his father the Emperor’s marriage to Little Wan (Zhang Ziyi) – a woman he himself was in love with - has retired to a life of quiet contemplation in a remote region where he studies the art of music and dance. While he is away, his father dies, apparently killed in his bed by a scorpion. Everyone seems to realise that the scorpion who has killed the Emperor is his own brother, but few are prepared to speak out against the crime. Intending to usurp the throne and marry his brother’s wife, he realises however that must also be rid of the Prince. Forewarned of his father’s death however, Prince Wu Luan evades the troop of assassins that have been sent by his uncle and returns to the court where he intends to expose the treachery that has been done.
The Banquet is certainly a sumptuous looking film – the sets and costumes are colourful, detailed and beautifully lit throughout, only submitting occasionally and unnecessarily to grandiose CGI rendering of the kingdom and palace like something out of Lord of the Rings, or worse The Promise. Unfortunately, for all the attention that goes into the production design and the slow deliberation in the delivery of lines, little of it carries an appropriate sense of authority. Most of the action sequences take place in the first third of the film, which should serve to establish the brutality of the period and the machinations of royal power struggles, but far too much elaboration goes into the flying battles and calligraphic dripping and spraying of CGI blood around for it to have the real visceral force of, for example, La Reine Margot’s bloody court intrigues. Even in comparison to any other similarly themed epic Asian court dramas, The Banquet, despite its Shakespearean source, fails to reach the depth of intrigue and complexity of relationships of The Emperor And The Assassin, the grace and majesty of Hero, or even the sheer entertainment of The King and the Clown.
As an adaptation of Hamlet, The Banquet’s script lacks the poetry, pace and symmetry of the original drama, but manages at least to get the key scenes to work and even manages to adapt a few new situations and intrigues of its own. Disappointingly, the “travelling players” revelation of the method of the Emperor’s murder is unimaginatively staged here, but the force of its import is still felt in the tears of blood that flow from the “ghost” in the Emperor’s old armour. The banquet scene is rather more successful, but as the tragic climax of the play it’s the one scene that simply cannot afford to be botched. The one major change to the relationships and intrigues between the personalities of the play is the role played by Zhang Ziyi. Wan is not Prince Wu Luan’s mother here (I don’t think we ever know who is), the role having been re-written to suit the failing to secure Gong Li for the role - but what the film loses from the play’s incestuous suggestion, it gains from the rivalry this sparks between Zhang Ziy’s Wan and Zhou Xun as The Banquet’s Ophelia, Qing. It’s a pity then that these two fan-favourite actresses are not given any better lines or expected to do more than just look pretty in their scenes together, and consequently instead of being an interesting development, it actually unravels the delicate thread that weaves through one of the greatest plays ever written and holds it all together so powerfully. Despite my reservations about Daniel Wu’s ability to handle the Hamlet role, he actually makes a convincing Prince, aided it would seem by a dubbed Mandarin voice in a deeper register than you would normally hear from him. He’s maturing well and quite capable of carrying the role, but, as elsewhere, he also is hampered by unimaginative dialogue and staging that undercuts the power of the source material.
The Banquet is released in Hong Kong by Media Asia. The DVD is released in standard and Special Edition sets. The Special Edition reviewed here is a 2-DVD set in an amaray case, slipcased with a heavy card booklet which serves as a calendar with promotional stills cards and costume designs. The disc is in NTSC format and is region-free.
The transfer is the typically problematic Media Asia transfer. On the surface it looks great – colourful, bright and well contrasted, with scarcely a flaw on the print, the image captures the wonderful colours, lighting and detail in the elaborate production designs. Unfortunately, it’s a little on the soft side and the usual problems of the handling of blacks is present here, particularly large blocks of background shadows, which are marred by the amount of low-level noise. Blacks consequently tend to be flattened out, showing no shadow detail, often discolouring to a dull deep maroon. In view of the other visual attractions, this will probably not trouble many viewers, but I’m constantly disappointed by Media Asia’s poor authoring of their transfers, particularly on films that look as good as this.
The film comes with two mixes of the original Mandarin soundtrack (and no Cantonese dub). Both the DTS and the Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are excellent, serving the fine sound design and Tan Dun’s score very well. There is no background noise, dialogue is crystal clear and the sound is well spread across the speakers with appropriate dymanism.
Optional English subtitles are included in a white font. I didn’t see any flaws in the grammar or spelling.
The extra features are all on Disc 2, and even without English subtitles, you can tell that they are the standard bland studio-produced promotional features. The Making Of (14:58) is based around interviews with the cast, director and filmmaking team, but includes plenty of detail on the art design, costumes, music score, action and dance choreography, as well as the filming of actual scenes. Essentially, it’s a compact EPK version cut down from the remaining features on the disc. The Interviews (8:00) are just eight one-minute snippets centred around one of the cast (three in the case of Zhang Ziyi). Behind The Scenes (16:05) is divided into chapters, covering various aspects of the production – art direction, wardrobe etc. The 40 Minute Behind The Scenes (40:08) feature is actual on-set footage of rehearsals and filming. It’s set to music and doesn’t require subtitles. The Cannes Promo Trailer (6:50) and the Teaser Trailer (1:35) are undeniably impressive. There are also three TV Spots (0:15, 0:30 and 1:00). Rounding out the beautiful visual aspect of the film are Poster & Promotional Materials (14), and a Stills Gallery (20).
Considering the wealth of talent involved, the pedigree of a plot based on perhaps the greatest play ever written and the sumptuous production values, you would expect The Banquet to deliver much more than a mediocre script, indifferently staged and inadequately performed. Any disappointment in the film is echoed in the transfer. It looks gorgeous and is well-packaged with extra features that emphasise the visual qualities of the film, but the transfer itself, while on the surface looking quite beautiful, is the usual second-rate Media Asia affair.
Last updated: 26/06/2018 07:22:09