LEGEND OF THE BLACK SCORPION (a.k.a. The BANQUET) is the Chinese rendition of Shakespeare's "Hamlet". Directed by Mainland China's own acclaimed director Feng Xiaogang, joined with the lush cinematography by Tim Yip (Croaching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and the action choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping( Fearless); the film is set to bring Chinese Wuxia epic to new heights. Feng even acquired the services of one of China's most renowned international actresses; Zhang Ziyi.
The film was released in Asia in 2006( before "Curse of the Golden Flower"), set for the American market but for reasons unknown, "Curse of the Golden Flower" was marketed instead to U.S. shores.
The story is set in ancient China during the period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. Against this backdrop of internal turmoil and external threat poised by the neighboring Khitan Empires, lives Empress Wan (Zhang Ziyi). As beautiful as she is limber, she harbors forbidden desires for her stepson Crown Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu). When the Emperor dies of reasons undetermined and his younger brother Li takes the throne, Wan marries Li to protect Wu Luan and seal her own position in the ruling body. But Li is not a fool and dispatches assassins that ultimately fail to kill Wu Luan. When Emperor Li proclaims a big banquet, Wu Luan and Wan realize it is time to strike.
The Banquet (I prefer to call it by its original title) is a beautiful film; elaborate costumes and set designs are the main draw of the film. Frankly, I liked this film's cinematography, atmosphere and set designs more than "Curse of the Golden Flower". The film simply looks astounding, the colors and way it is shot is truly amazing. However, beauty and cinematography can only carry a film so far. The expectations for "The Banquet" are extremely high, and while it does succeed as a high-quality spectacle that is a visual and aural feast; it fails to deliver on emotions and its characters. Even Yuen Woo-Ping's action direction feels a little hampered with the overused slow-motion approach undertaken by the director. Still, the film is better than most. It presents itself similar to a stage play (which is fine, it is "Hamlet") but I believe this style does hurt the film a little. The film is carefully and superbly arranged with characters well-mannered that even assassins conduct themselves politely even in the face of blood. The Banquet is more a period drama than a Wuxia film, in fact, I believe the film could have survived without any martial arts action.
Amazingly beautiful Zhang Ziyi struggles to carry the film. As good and beautiful the actress is, even Zhang cannot carry a film all by herself. Her portrayal of Empress Wan is actually the film's center; Zhang's character is in the middle of deception, lust and eventual betrayal. Thankfully, Zhang has the charisma to pull off an underdeveloped character such as Empress Wan. However, Zhang feels a bit unseasoned and too young (perhaps) for the role of the empress. Don't get me wrong, I think Zhang Ziyi is an awesome actress, but the role feels tailor-made for Chinese veteran actress Gong Li. Daniel Wu plays Wu Luan; a brooding, quiet and never shows his emotions in calculating vengeance. Wu plays an acceptable performance, after all, he does play "Hamlet" which was meant as a person with minor momentum, instead of displaying raw anger he imposes his wrath through indirect means. I guess it was a good move for the screenplay to emphasize Empress Wan's character than Wu Luan himself, I doubt Daniel Wu will be able to carry the film at all.
The performances are good for the most part. It's just that the characters seemed a bit underdeveloped that the lead characters will have some difficulty connecting with its audience. The film does take off strongly but it couldn't stay aloft. Supporting actress Zhao Xun (Ming Ming) has huge talent but her character of Quing is too simple and a bit one-dimensional. Ge You comes out with an outstanding performance as Emperor Li; his powerful portrayal is truly superb and note-worthy. Ultimately, while this film is loosely based on "Hamlet", the climax does occur in a banquet and this is a Chinese film where the old adage applies: No evil deed will go unpunished and repaid.
The Banquet is a very difficult film to judge. The film feels too mainstream for a Wuxia Epic drama and it seems geared towards international audiences and not to the people of Feng's native land. The film is definitely a part of the superficial, overindulgent popular Chinese film for viewers in the U.S. It is not a contemporary Wuxia film but rather one so polished for international acclaim (then again, I've read it was its intention). The lack of emotions and character depth never allows the film to surpass its gorgeous costumes and set designs. The film does succeed in the classic manipulations and plots of betrayal; but ultimately, the lasting impression is how beautifully shot and expensive the film is that it falls a bit short of epic grandeur. The film is better than most, it is better than Chen Kaige's "The Promise" but if you saw "HERO" and " HOUSE of FLYING DAGGERS"; the film just cannot surpass the coldness of its exterior.
RECOMMENDED [3 ½ stars]
Note: The Dragon Dynasty release (re-titled Legend of the Black Scorpion) will carry an English dubbed track.
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