Fantasia Report: The Banquet Review
Forget everything you know about Feng Xiaogang. While Zhang Yimou, one of China's most revered arthouse directors, used the wuxia epic to make a move towards mainstream success director Feng, one of China's most successful commercial directors, is here using the wuxia to make exactly the opposite move. Feng's adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, The Banquet -- available on DVD here -- is every inch an epic scaled art film -- deeply theatrical, stunningly beautiful, filled with intriguing contradictions, and a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the source material.
Set in tenth century China when the vast land was a political shambles, the dominant empire crumbling with rebellious regions splintering off into rival kingdoms, The Banquet stars Daniel Wu -- a major star who has long since outgrown the teen idol roles that inexplicably remain his staple -- as Wu Luan, the reluctant crown prince of the empire who withdrew to the country and joined an acting troupe three years previous when his father married Wan (Zhang Ziyi), his childhood friend and would-be lover. Wu Luan's quiet life as an artist is shattered when his ambitious uncle kills the Emperor, assumes the throne and sends a band of assassins to kill the rightful heir. Wan, for her part, recognizes that the self appointed Emperor is a threat both to herself and to her true love, Wu Luan, and in a bid to protect him agrees to marry the new Emperor. With this slight modification to the character of the queen, who is now step-mother and lover, the film now moves ahead mirroring Hamlet quite closely throughout.
The Banquet is a curious blend of competing and seemingly self-contradictory elements -- at once larger than life yet tightly restrained, both shockingly beautiful and shockingly brutal -- and that Feng is able to pull it off is a testament to his very talented cast, his range of gifted collaborators, and his own skills as a director. Reportedly frustrated with his reputation as a purveyor of fluff Feng has intended The Banquet as proof that he is capable of more and prove his point he has.
What immediately strikes you with The Banquet is the sheer scale of the film. Feng has a gifted and experienced design crew -- many of whom won Oscars for their work on Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon -- and he has clearly also been granted a budget to let them indulge themselves fully. The sets, the armour, the costuming, it is all intricately detailed and truly epic. The opening theater set is simply gorgeous while the Imperial Castle truly deserves the 'epic' tag and must surely be one of the largest standing sets ever constructed. But what sets Feng's environments apart from most is that while creating things on a truly massive scale he also shows a dedication to realism, stone walls weathered and undressed, floors largely made of polished wood, everything obviously well used. While Zhang has filled his wuxia epics with environments that dazzle with the heightened use of color Feng has opted to create something that is simultaneously epic and yet entirely plausible.
Given the structure of the film it also will not take long to be greatly impressed by the martial arts choreography. Though the film is actually significantly more focused on drama and palace intrigue than it is with hand to hand combat it opens with a simply stunning sequence and all subsequent sequences show every bit as much verve. Just when you though you had seen everything that veteran choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping had to offer on the fight along comes something like this film, in which Yuen shows us something entirely new. His fusion of grace and brutality suggests that Yuen may have spent some time with The Duelist recently but he has taken those influences and made them into something else entirely, crafting martial arts sequences that are graceful and flowing while also acknowledging the raw brutality of hand to hand combat. It is also quite refreshing to see Wu, a legitimate martial artist, given a rare chance to show his physical skills on screen.
Dazzling production values aside, The Banquet would come to naught if not paired with a cast capable of filling those environments, and Feng's cast does exactly that. Zhang Ziyi turns in another in her line of strong performances, Wu shows more than he has been given opportunity to since One Night In Mongkok and the rest of the cast is similarly experienced and talented. The script is remarkably sparse and restrained, rarely wasting words and trusting the actors to carry the emotion of the piece through actions rather than dialogue. They do exactly that.
Ironically it is the strengths of The Banquet that will likely also limit its success. People go to a film made at this scale expecting a similarly flashy story line, equivalent bursts of action and sheer entertainment, but at its heart The Banquet is essentially a chamber drama, a film purely and totally concerned with the consequences of unbridled desire. Feng's success in showing himself capable of 'serious' film, captured as it is in the trappings of epic entertainment, will itself make it difficult for the film to find a widespread audience.
One surprising -- and major -- oversight aside the new Hong Kong DVD release is simply stellar. The film is presented in its proper 2.35:1 screen ratio with an anamorphic transfer optimized for 16x9 screens. The transfer is crystal clear with deep, rich colors and excellent contrasts, see the screen captures below for examples. Sound comes in 5.1 and DTS options and the optional English subtitles are clearly translated and easy to read. The bonus disc is loaded to the gills as well, featuring a fifteen minute making of, interviews with cast and crew -- Zhang Ziyi, Daniel Wu, Zhou Xun, Ge You, Yuen Wo-Ping and Feng Xiaogang -- a pair of behind the scenes features -- one clocking in at 16 minutes, the other at 40 -- and a complete range of promotional materials. Alas, this is the disc where the shocking omission occurs. How is it that a release as clearly targetted at the export market as this one is -- hence the release being coded region free -- could omit English subtitles on the special features? Quite surprising considering both the international recognition the film has received and the current state of Hong Kong DVD releases, in which subtitled feature sets are rapidly becoming the norm. This edition also comes with a beautiful photo book, the first half of which doubles as a calendar.