Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Banquet

I had been hoping to see this over the summer at the New York Asian Film Festival, but it wasn’t playing on the day my friend Emily and I went, so we had to content ourselves with an admittedly really good double bill of Big Bang Love and Exte. It did help that the Banquet, like the delightful I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK and Zebraman, was available on all-region DVD, so I was finally able to snag a copy.

For those that don’t know, this is a fast and loose adaptation of Hamlet, set in 907 A.D. China, when rebellion was commonplace and Life Was Cheap! Ahem. I may have been watching too many exploitation films lately. Anyway, as said before, while this film kept the basic plot of Shakespeare’s play, director Xiaogang Feng didn’t really have much of a problem with changing it to suit him better. Case in point, much like how Branagh set his As You Like It in Japan so he could have ninjas in it, placing this in the context of a war-torn ancient China enabled him to fill this with epic wire fu battles. It would be a bit hypocritical for me to complain about this, I suppose, since I thoroughly enjoyed it whenever Kurosawa would reshape one of Shakespeare’s plays into a samurai tale, but what can I say, I like samurai movies a good deal more than I like wire fu.

Other changes to the story are a good deal more encouraging, however. The Crown Prince’s mother-in-law, played by Ziyi Zhang, is a much more central figure to the proceedings than in the original story, and is one of the more abominable schemers I’ve seen in a film. She pits her new husband, who’s taken the throne after poisoning his brother, the previous emperor, and the Crown Prince, against each other, hoping they both kill each other so that she can have the throne to herself. More than that, though, she takes a great delight in hurting others, ordering extensive punishments for any who cross her path. If at times she seems to be human and feel some actual remorse for her actions, it must be noted that it only happens when she has an audience around her. Lady Macbeth has nothing on this woman.

Another key change comes in the form of the Crown Prince (Daniel Wu). While it’s certainly true that in Hamlet his inability to take action against his uncle was his fatal character flaw, he certainly wasn’t a weakling overall, and had no problem with attacking people when he felt it necessary. Here, however, he’s a total milksop. His refusal to take action comes not from some inner turmoil, but because he’s a total weakling who, as one character puts it, is capable of singing and dancing and nothing else (this is not a metaphor, mind you – he hides himself in the country with his theater friends at the film’s beginning until an assassination attempt forces him to return home). One gets the definite feeling that, even if he were to bring down all his enemies and take the throne, China would be in bad shape.

It’s a very good film, overall, and the changes to the plot achieve enough surprises that, while I knew the general tune of the story, I still was unable to quite guess what was coming. There’s an amazingly grim ending that, even knowing how Hamlet normally ends, seemed a bit excessive, and the steady stream of battles, as well as the various intrigues and machinations being devised by almost every character around the prince, keep things moving along swiftly. As an adaptation of Hamlet goes, it’s not up to the level of Branagh’s more standard version, but it’s a quite accomplished film all the same.

Rating: *** ½

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