The Banquet Review

The film

I can't remember who said it, but the words "all that glisters is not gold" kept coming to me during Feng Xiaogang's attempt to adapt Hamlet as a wu xia. For this huge production, laden with top Asian stars, a cast of thousands and intricate choreography for its fights and dances, doesn't quite deserve the presentation its been given. Its like opening the most lovingly wrapped present you have ever seen to find that inside is a comfortable pair of slippers several sizes too big, sure you can appreciate them and they will be of some use to you but really the added ceremony of unwrapping it just made the present even more disappointing.

Lavish, spectacular and undeniably impressive, The Banquet is clearly a delight for the eyes, but the story does feel both overlong and rather lacking in narrative cohesion. The film is also poorly served by some strange casting and characterisation which leaves Zhang Ziyi and Daniel Wu with impossible tasks to complete in making their portrayals believable or sympathetic. This adaptation of one of the most splendid tales of English literature seems to actually defeat itself by starting off with such a high concept and then trying to shoehorn inappropriate actors into re-written parts, all within a severely truncated running time when compared with the duration of the original play.

The original story of the Prince usurped by his uncle is maintained here, but the Gertrude of Hamlet becomes a lot younger to suit Ziyi's age. The prince, in turn, is effete, bookish and missing any semblance of both madness or being locked in a fight with his conscience, instead he is completely devoid of guile in hiding his feelings and rather vulnerable to any number of murderous attacks by his blatant behaviour. For some reason unknown to me, the women all swoon and desire him, and his dangerous uncle gives him plenty of opportunity to evade his fate. Throw in a lovelorn maid and the Yin clan lost in the machiavellian dealings around them, and this is a heady brew with a very Chinese feel to it in the endless machinations and melodrama.

Still, after making it such a BIG adaptation and using such BIG stars, I am left wondering why would you try to film Hamlet and throw away the story on concessions made to casting and context. If you have already decided to dispense with some of the finest speeches ever written in theatre, it seems foolhardy to then change the narrative so much as to make the original source unrecognisable. Of course you can get away with taking such liberties, as Kurosawa proved with The Bad Sleep Well, Ran and Throne of Blood, but you can do this only if you make the new story compelling rather than vainly magnificent. The Banquet is not compelling, and the attempts to echo Yimou's Hero in its conclusion, and to copy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the opening attempt on the Prince's life, merely serve to show that, outside of its commercial intent to cash in on the trend for new wu xia, there is very little of substance here. The film even uses Tan Dun to provide the music, like his wonderful score for Hero, but again it just doesn't quite work with endless orchestration and accompaniment to every single moment of cinema that just leaves you wondering whether the composer was paid by the note.

The film's finale is very much a case of last man or woman standing, and suddenly a moral theme appears as the remaining character, now the new emperor, is suddenly treated to some of their own medicine, and, as the titles roll, we are asked to reflect on the terrible things people do for the sake of power. This final grope at gravitas can not hide the fact that the whole project has not really worked, and that, having rebuilt Hamlet, Xiaogang has replaced its virtues with, at best, some entertaining setpieces. The Banquet isn't clever enough to be an expose of ruthlessness, it isn't artful enough to say anything touching about people, it is simply a gorgeous looking feast that leaves you wanting a proper meal.

It's a real disappointment that the director of Assembly and World Without Thieves couldn't step up to the mark here.The Banquet will pass the time well enough, but I dare you to not find yourself wanting to stop the disc and watch House of Flying Daggers instead. As someone else said, "Let every eye negotiate for itself" but I believe you will find that The Banquet is a middling xu xia and a poor imitation of the original author, whoever that might be.

The disc

Well this disc has some competition with R1 and R3 discs out already, and despite what is a competent and properly converted transfer, I am afraid to say that this R2 release loses out by comparison. First of all, the film is at 1.78:1 with the OAR being 2.35:1 and consequently substantial information is missing from each frame. Secondly, this release only comes with a single 5.1 option, and not the DTS tracks to be found elsewhere. And, finally, there is no commentary from the wonderful Bey Logan and much less offered in terms of extras. I do need to point out that the transfer on this disc looks very sharp and the colour palette is faithful and impressive, that the contrast has excellent black levels and the edges have been left looking very natural. Similarly, the 5.1 track brings the fight sequences alive and creates excellent atmosphere using the sub-woofer channel in the humungous sets, and the clarity of dialogue and reproduction of music are all impressive. I found the surround effect very convincing with well mixed effects, directional action and a pleasing sensible treatment of the dialogue which avoids over fussy mixing for a mostly frontal position in the mix. The English subtitles are not perfect with odd slips in grammar and a couple of typos but very serviceable overall.

The making of featurette comes with optional subs too and deals with cast, direction and choreography in the film with interviews from cast and crew and footage of shooting. It is very reverential to its subject so I have to admit I almost spat out my coffee when I learned that Ziyi was meant to be a character in her thirties, and when she describes herself rather immodestly as a "great" actor. The final extra is a very short English subbed trailer. All subtitles are optional on the feature and the extras.

Summary

The clincher with this release for fans of the film will be the ratio of the transfer, but for those not aware of the movie I would be surprised if you will be too impressed by the quality of the film.

Film
6 out of 10
Video
6 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 23:17:14

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