]b (2006)
The Banquet


Reviewed by: dandan
Date: 07/13/2010
Summary: how many lives have been consumed by this flame?

907 ad, china. the tang dynasty has crumbled, it is a time of treachery, power struggles, insugency and rebellion, a period known as 'the five dynasties and the ten kingdoms'. in what remains of the imperial family, prince wu luan (daniel wu) has fallen in love with the maiden little wan (zhang ziyi), but the emperor chooses to take little wan as his wife. heart-broken, the young prince flees to the southern provinces, seeking refuge in the study of acting, music and dance.

our story begins three years later. the emperor's brother li (ge you) has poisoned the emperor, seizing the throne and, the now, empress wan. empress wan sends a messenger to wu luan, informing him of his father's murder and urging his return, unaware that the new emperor li has also dispatched assassins to snuff out the threat posed by the prince's return. evading this threat, the prince returns to the imperial palace, his heart set on avenging his father...

one's immediate thought when thinking of 'the banquet' is the comparisons to 'crouching tiger, hidden dragon', 'hero' and 'house of flying daggers' that it has already garnered. indeed, there has even been a spate of articles, following on from the lacklustre reception that chen kaige's 'the promise' recieved, declaring how chinese wu xia epics are no longer of much interest to anyone. that's an opinion that i, for one, would take issue with...

of the four films that i've just named, i'd say that 'the banquet' is most similar, in scope, style and substance to 'crouching tiger, hidden dragon', although that's not to say that it's anything like it. 'the banquet' is not a wu xia epic, it's a period drama, rich with character: the martial arts sequences, that it does contain, are secondary to the narrative drama.

the film's narrative is heavily influenced by shakespeare's 'hamlet', which stands it in good stead, but the story and characters have been sufficiently tweaked by writers, qiu gangjian and sheng heyu, and director, feng xiaogang, to dismiss any accusations of it being a simple adaptation. the basic premise is there, as is the sense that we are building to something akin to the bard's tragic, climactic finale.

the main criticism of 'the banquet' seems to have been related to its pace, but i found it moved at a pace that suited its content; the brooding nature of the narrative and the development of character needs a gentler pace. people also seem to have been critical of zhang ziyi, questioning her casting (as a result of which the character of empress wan was made younger) and her ability to do justice to the role. quite frankly, i think she's done herslef a lot of favours in this role.

zhang ziyi is an actress who's fallen beneath my radar over the last year or so; i've had very little interest in the projects she's been involved in. in her role as empress wan, she is simply stunning as a young woman, who's had her identity and lover taken from her, been thrust into the role of empress and is now torn by the return of her first love and the power she's become accustomed to, a power that remains in her grasp, whilst she is li's.

ge you is also great at conveying the menace, weakness and torment that, as he says, arises as result of "the tug between power and love": a muderer, a usurper and a man enchanted by the charms of his new empress. daniel wu puts in yet another solid performance as the emotional young prince; like empress wan, his wu luan is torn between his feelings (for wan), the pain of his father's murder and his relationship with the daughter of general yin, qing (zhou xun). alongside zhang ziyi, zhou xun is amazing; as qing, she represents something that none of the other characters do: innocence and truth. this often isolates her within the imperial court and her devotion to prince qu luan drives her through the hardship that it causes her.

it is at this point, that i feel compelled to wax lyrical about the film on a purely visual level. the set of the imperial palace is almost a character itself. it has been dressed with astounding detail and the absolute beauty of almost every frame of the film, in which it appears, is a remarkable achievement; from the empress's chamber, the throne room, corridors and exteriors. besides the sets, the costume design is also quite beautiful. the combined effect of the costumes, their inhabitants and the world which they inhabit, make 'the banquet' one of the most beautiful films i've watched for a while.

finally, a word on the action sequences; they are, after all, the work of yuen wo-ping. there are three, relatively short sequences, all featuring daniel wu, alongside a larger sequence at the beginning of the film. they are all visually stunning but, while actually being quite bloody and violent, they are more balletic in their choreography and execution. personally, i love them but, if you're expecting something along the lines of what you've seen in 'crouching tiger, hidden dragon' or 'fearless', you'll probably feel let down. then again, if you're expecting action over drama, the same will be true.

over all, i have to say that i'm a big fan of this film. feng xiaogang has taken shakespeare's influence and crafted a solid drama, that has as much style as it does substance. that's not to say that it doesn't have it's faults, there's a few parts of the narrative that aren't as strong as others and the ultimate scene of the film may raise a question or two but, with so many reviews choosing to dwell on any negative they can see, i thought i'd go the other way and be nice.

thumbs up...


Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 04/18/2007

April seems to be remake/ripoff month here at Hong Kong Film Net, and we have another case here with The Banquet. A re-telling of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" set approximately during the Qing Dynasty, The Banquet thankfully goes far above the other cheap "homages" we have reviewed this month.

Sporting the largest budget for a Mainland production ever, The Banquet is simply a delight to look at. There are a few CGI-enhanced scenes, but most of the splendor was created with good old fashioned elbow sweat, through huge sets and sumptuous costumes. It was truly refreshing to see an "epic" film that actually looked the part.

Though it's not an action movie by any stretch of the imagination, The Banquet also sports some impressive fight scenes, which are helmed by Yuen Woo-Ping. Though Yuen's work in this type of film is getting to be a bit cookie-cutter (a lot of slow-motion shots of flowy robes), the scenes here are well put together. This particular reviewer also appreciated the fact that there was a good amount of blood. Nothing gives a little punch to a sword fight like spurts of claret.

Acting-wise, The Banquet also handles itself well. What was really nice about it is that all of the main actors managed to create characters that were neither truly good nor truly evil. Far too many Chinese period dramas attempt to pin characterization on broad cariacture, and fail miserably in the process. I wouldn't say any of the acting was award-winning, but at least none of it made me cringe -- even Daniel Wu's first attempt at a Mandarin lead role.

But what really solidifies The Banquet is the screenplay and direction. Even though most people out there know the basic story of "Hamlet" (and thus the big twist at the end), The Banquet portrays the story in such a way that even one of the oldest endings in literature seems new and fresh. It's a bit hard to describe in print, but director Feng Xiaogang knows the perfect amount of information to give to the viewer, always keeping them interested in what will happen next without dumbing down thigns too much.

Though The Banquet doesn't really present anything that hasn't been shown before, and suffers a bit from over-length, it's still an extremely solid costume/period drama that should please most fans of Chinese cinema.

[review from www.hkfilm.net]

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: ewaffle
Date: 01/28/2007

There are a lot of estimable works that use some of the images, plots devices, language and even characters from “Hamlet”. “Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard, the opera “Hamlet” by Ambrose Thomas, a work whose beauty I have yet to grasp but which retains a tenuous hold in the standard repertory in Europe, the Kurosawa masterpiece “The Dead Sleep Well” are among them. “The Banquet” is now part of this list. The parallels to Shakespeare’s masterpiece are obvious: Crown Prince Wu Luan is Hamlet, Qing could be Ophelia, Empress Wan has some but not many of the characteristics of Gertrude, the Emperor is Claudius (probably the most analogous of the characters), General Yin closely resembles Laertes and while Minister Yin is structurally the same as Polonius, his character has much more nobility of spirit than Shakespeare’s old windbag.

Some of the action and tropes—the play within the play, the attempted banishment and assassination of the Crown Prince, the use of poison—in “The Banquet” are also present in “Hamlet”. But this movie, like all of the works mentioned above, has to rise and fall on its own merits. Whether it is based on, influenced by or refers to either one of the cornerstones of drama is immaterial—what the writers, director, actors and others put on the screen is what counts.

“The Banquet” consists of a number of dishes which don’t really make a meal—in this case revenge is meal that is served piping hot but with very little reflection on the enormity crimes committed by the usurping Emperor. This is a real problem because it deflects our interest from the Crown Prince who should be the center of attention even when off screen. The Emperor, who is written and played as evil incarnate, is the most energetic character while Qing and her father are the most sympathetic. The Empress comes across as confused and ambiguous, an effect for which Fang Xiaogang was most likely striving. She is fanatically devoted to Emperor Li because of his skill in love making but hates him as the murderer of her husband and illegal claimant to the throne. Both Qing and General Yin are too good to be true, which is not a drawback in a drama in which everyone is plotting against everyone else. The Pharmacist was a brilliant creation, a deadly tool who could be used by whomever had the power or could pay his price. The last scene between him and the Empress was a subtle misdirection that only became clear at the very end of the movie.

That there was real suspense at the climax of the film shows the skill and creativity of the filmmakers. The schemes became clear to the audience just a beat before they did to the plotters, including the red herrings that were supposed to distract the real targets from danger—and there were several targets since there were several plots, some of which became apparent only as they unfolded. This was at least partially offset by the clumsiness in depicting the sexual chemistry between the Emperor and his new consort. The extended intimate scenes between them may have been to set up how much Empress Wan hated her brother-in-law and how she was able to fool him but even if so they were dull and took up too much screen time.

The cinematography, costume design and set design were all lush, beautiful to see and just about perfectly executed. There were a lot of extremely long robes that seem appropriate, especially when shot from above and the use of deep red and pure white was telling. The awful power wielded by the Emperor, who could sentence someone to be publicly beaten to death, was well illustrated by bowing and scraping of everyone in his presence, including victorious generals and long serving members of the nobility. The use of masks was especially well done, both as symbols of deceit and artifice and also as masks themselves, hiding the identity of the person lurking behind.

The score by Tan Dun was terrific—he writes to film as well as anyone currently working. It was always appropriate to what was happening onscreen but didn’t call attention to itself. The music itself is worth the price of the disc, something that becomes clear if you listen without watching.

Recommended

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 12/03/2006
Summary: 7/10 - lovely to look at

The latest ‘most expensive movie made in China’ – until Zhang Yimou’s ‘Curse Of The Golden Armour’ – is a sumptuous period piece based on a play some English bloke that I must confess I am not all that familiar with (“Hamlet” to be specific). The Emperor is murdered by his brother (Ge You), who claims the throne but seems more interested in claiming the Empress (Zhang Ziyi), who was originally the childhood sweetheart of the old Emperor’s son (Daniel Wu) who some might argue has a more rightful claim to the throne – but has been living an artists’ life with a theatre troupe since his dad married his girl. The new emperor is not about to take the risk he’ll quietly stay out of the way though, and sends assassins to sort him out.

The production definitely looks and feels expensive, with grandiose sets and costumes and the beautiful cinematography that characterized Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House Of Flying Daggers. Indeed, it seems that matching up to Zhang’s works must have weighed heavily on director Feng Xiaogang’s mind, as the cinematography and production design sometimes resembles that in one or the other of Zhang’s films too closely for coincidence, with occasional glimmers of Crouching Tigerness too. The presence of Zhang Ziyi in all the above doesn’t make it harder to draw comparisons.

The Banquet is not a martial arts film, it’s a period (melo)drama with some martial arts scenes. The venerable Yuen Wo-Ping leads the team of action directors, but seems to have been instructed to imitate the choreography of Ching Siu-Tung in Hero and House, producing scenes of choreographed beauty that often looks more like dance than combat. Shots or moves again sometimes look to close to Zhang Yimou’s films for coindence or comfort, and/or too concerned with the aesthetic to be convincingly ‘dangerous’.

The action is not the focus of this film though, it is the machinations of the imperial court and the evocation of a time of splendour, power and riches few modern leaders could hope to surround themselves with (though some may dream of it). In this respect it’s pretty successful, with some fine acting and unquestionably lovely visuals. There are some great moments, but at other times it feels too concerned with how it will be received – especially how it will be compared to ZY’s films, rather than a work of sincerity and conviction. Whilst mostly enjoyable, the film has a few moments that weaken it, is a little over-long and has an ending that doesn’t feel entirely satisfying (and then a second ending that’s plain odd). The end result is a film that’s mostly enjoyable but isn’t going to go down as a classic in too many history books. It ranks a little below HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS and significantly below HERO or CTHD, if Feng Xiaogang would like my opinion on the question.

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: evirei
Date: 11/26/2006
Summary: Settings not to be missed!

Daniel Wu…. *drool* Zhou Xun *double drool*… ah… must not miss. Yes, I once again watch a movie because of the people. but never for Zhang Zhiyi. Ewww… I still have no idea why many people make a big huh-hah about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and solely look up to Zhang for it’s success.

The lead character Zhang is playing in the movie apparently belongs to Gong Li (hip hip hooray) which she turn down in order to appear in Miami Vice. What a waste. How nice if she didn’t have conflict in schedules. I could see Daniel, Gong Li and Zhou Xun together. Not to mention directed by Feng Xiao Gang himself.

Yes, noted as one of the famous China director, Feng return to the big screen with this big bang. It’s been the talk of the town since like a year ago. The setting, the casting… it just leads on to get more and more attention.

Having and grouping the finest of the finest people around to create such a masterpiece. Who could help but to talk about it. Having Yuen Wo Ping as their action choreographer. Yes, always being branded as ” from the action choreographer from The Matrix Trilogy and crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” I think he failed to nail it in this movie.

The actions look stale, boring, reused and recycled a million times. The most disappointing part is after so many times doing it, have done it big for so many box office, he still can make this mistake. The first fight scene where the imperial guards fly out from the water. The wire on the guard at the left side was so visibly seen.

Being such a big person with big name in this industry… I just think he makes a commit suicide mistake. The blood splattering to the screen is just another old trick so old that I could just lick the screen and say… KETCHUP!!!

Okay back to the story… the story started with a brief narration of how china was weak and many different people rule different parts of China after the fall of the Tang dynasty. When at young age, Empress Wan (Zhang ZhiYi) and Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) is supposedly lovers until his father decided to keep Wan for himself and make her the Empress. Sadden by the news, Wu Luan hides himself far from the kingdom and persue arts.

Time as passes and the crown prince was still happily learning art at some hidden place until his father’s death. His uncle, Empror Li (Ge You) killed the empror and announced himself as the new empror. He sent the “Lord of the Rings” ugly looking creatures like Imperial guard to kill Wu Luan. Knowing what is happening, Empress Wan sent some helps to Wu Luan as she still have feelings for him.

Unknown to many, apparently Empror Li has been eyeing on Empress Wan for a long time and one of the main reason to the murder of the previous empror. Loving her so much, she is quickly crowned as the new Empress again.

Wu Luan is sadden by the fact that his father’s death is no accident. Luckly he is often accompanied by his wife to be, Qing Nu (Zou Xun). Her character was a more opposite of what Zhang is playing. Zhang plays an unfaithful, greedy, bitchy like character while Zhou Xun is loyal, pure, innocent and simple minded.

There has been a lot of havoc happening when Empror Li has decided to crown Wan to be the new empress. Wu Luan has also given up hope on Empress Wan. On the crowning ceremony, Wu Luan was supposed to perform sword fighting (a plan Empror Li has set to kill him). He changed the performance in to an theather performace hinting how he would want to poision Empror Li.

Being so angry, Empror Li sent Wu Luan off as an exchange to another kingdom, which in other words means D.I.E. Empress Wan then secretly sent the Minister’s son (Huang Xiaoming) to help rescue him. Thinking he is dead, the Empror deicded to held a banquet. Where he ordered everyone to join. Those who refused shall be killed.

Empress Wan then venture outside the palace and get some poision. She then ask the dealer. This is the most poisonous one? The dealer replied “No. nothing compares to a human heart.” I totally agree with his line. Nothing compares to a human heart.

Apparently, the Empress wants to kill the Empror and make herself the new empror as she is sick and tired of being pushed here and there. Not to mention she is well aware that she is growing old and she will soon lost her place. But deep down inside me, I still think she wish that she and Wu Luan can rule the country together.

She then mix the drink with the poision and present it as a toast to the Empror. The empror is about to drink it until Qing Nu decided to perform to the Empror. She then drinks a gulp from the cup.

Well… the ending was sorta some part expected… some part unexpected… and some part is still a mystery and it remains for you to wonder and kept guessing.

But looking at the subtle hints given… I think one would know what happened.

A movie that people should pay attention and appriciate the backgrounds, setting and scenery. Skip the actions as it has been done so many times, flawlessly before. some of the camera angles were so good it just manage to capture the moment. Script wise, I am amazed. Daniel Wu actually speaks better Mandarin than Cantonese. I think Ge You and Zhou Xun both acted very well in the movie. Zhang however.. hemm I just think she tries too hard. Maybe she have the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers burden on her back.

What can I say, it is one of those movies crafted to win awards. Make some westerners go WOW and their jaw can’t close. Well, at least it’s better than The Promise. Way better.

Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: Gaijin84
Date: 11/13/2006
Summary: Great visuals and acting, but drawn out...

In a script heavily influenced by Shakespeare's Hamlet, The Banquet is a film ripe with political intrigue, family strife and old-fashioned murder. Zhang Ziyi is Empress Wan, whose first husband (the Emperor) has been murdered by his own brother, Li (Ge You). Li is completely obsessed with Wan, and will do anything to insure that she becomes his Empress as well, and not the Empress Dowager. As Empress Dowager she would have complete control over the empire and the power-hungry Li cannot have this occur. Fearing that Wu Luan (Daniel Wu), the son of the original Emperor, will return and try and (in his opinion) usurp the thrown, Li tries multiple times to have Wu assassinated, but to no avail. When the Crown Prince Wu Luan eventually does return, the power plays between members of the household are at every turn. Unfortunately, even innocent bystanders like Wu's girlfriend Qing (Zhou Xun) are caught in the treachery.
The Banquet is an incredibly well acted film with absolutely stunning visuals. Feng Xiaogang has created an intriguing setting for one of Shakespeare's most famous plays and draws out the proceedings almost to a fault. As much as I enjoy watching Zhang Ziyi in all her scheming glory, I feel that the film could have been edited down from its 2 hour 10 minute length to about an hour and 45 minutes. The film sometimes feels too captive to its breathtaking sets and visuals and not attentive enough to the story, especially with a somewhat puzzling finale. It seems to be a trend in mainstream epic Chinese films these days to create sets that are above and beyond anything seen before. Maybe this is due to being able to stretch a budget further in China or the abundance of low-cost labor for set maintenance, but the film sometimes seems to get lost in those elaborate sets. Yuen Wo Ping's fight scenes are exciting, brutal and quite bloody, but sometime stray too much into slow motion and intricate posing. They are certainly not bad, but seem to be getting a bit stale. I would like to see some new directions taken in future movies that Yuen choreographs. It seems that he is involved with almost every big budget Chinese martial arts film that gets released, and he may need a break to recharge the creative batteries. In the music department, Tan Dun's score is soaring and fits well into the grandness of the movie. I think The Banquet lived up what I expected of it, but did not go above and beyond the similar movies that preceded it to reach a new level.

Reviewer Score: 7