Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Banquet or Why do I keep watching these movies?!

It's got to be some sort of self flagellation on my part, why do I keep watching these movies?

Ok so here's my review of Feng Xiaogang's (馮小剛)'s The Banquet. So although the genre might annoy me I do have some genuine reasons for watching the movie. For starters, it's based off Hamlet. As a literature nerd, I have always liked Hamlet. Possibly because lots of people die. So seeing it adapted to ancient China sounded kind of interesting. I mean Akira Kurosawa adapted King Lear into Throne of Blood. Furthermore, it's then a film targeted at Western audiences, selling itself as a traditional Chinese story, which is in fact based on a Western play. How very meta.

Some of the plot devices work pretty well. For example, Gertrude's incestuous tension (some say) with her son makes a lot more sense if she's in fact his stepmom. And since she was first engaged to the Crown Prince, but was later married to the Emperor, it seems like a good indication by ancient Chinese standards of the moral weakening of the regime or the rotten state of Denmark etc. Furthermore, the part where Claudius sends Hamlet off to England is adapted to sending Prince Wuluan to the Qidan in the North as a royal hostage. Which was a nice detail, since Chinese history has many stories of hostages being sent north.

I guess for my taste, The Banquet followed Hamlet a little too closely. So I already knew what was going to happen. Also a lot of the relationships between the characters weren't really explained. Most importantly Prince Wuluan's (Hamlet's) relationship to his father. Like Hamlet he's bent on avenging his father's death, but Hamlet's father didn't marry Hamlet's girlfriend. Clearly this relationship was a little bit twisted to say the least, but the movie doesn't go there. However, knowing that this event took place makes his single mindedness a little unconvincing. Furthermore, Wuluan isn't really crazy enough. Hamlet's indecisiveness and erratic nature is excusable because he's acting insane or he is actually insane. Wuluan broods a lot, but he seems more or less mentally sound.

Zhou Xun, who I normally really like, plays Qingnu, the Ophelia character, but she doesn't really connect with the character, and honestly the character is so blindly loyal to her lover, that she comes off as annoying rather than tragic. Kudos go to the guy (who looked a lot like Shawn Yu) who played Qingnu's brother. He does exhibit the kind of obsessive (and seemingly slightly incestuous) love for his family members that Hamlet is really all about. But he's only onscreen for about 20 minutes.

Ge You, who I also normally like a lot, is underwhelming as the Emperor. He was incredibly creepy in Farewell My Concubine, he's not really all that creepy here. And at the end, seemingly acts on his feelings, and dies somewhat nobly. Which seems an odd way to go for a guy who poisoned his brother, married his sister-in-law, and tries to kill his nephew.

As for Zhang Ziyi's character, the Empress Wan'er, she wasn't out and out bad exactly. But the movie clearly intends her to be a devious monster. Instead, for a large part of the movie, she seems like a cold woman, who was caught up in royal intrigue, rather than the irredeemable monster that she's supposed to be by the end. Also her feelings are pretty obvious from the start, which makes their revelation at the end kind of underwhelming.

Aside from acting problems, there's total gratuitous martial arts stuff in here. I mean randomly characters will bust out with martial arts stunts, that seem both out of character, and also they disrupt the narrative. Also, this is the Chinese nerd talking but, there is NO WAY that every member of the royal family is an accomplished martial artist. And furthermore, I can buy that the dead Emperor was a skilled warrior, however, that he taught his young wife his skills, I do not buy for one second.

Finally, as usual in these movies, Zhang Ziyi takes off all her clothes multiple times.

checklist of CTHD clones
Zhang Ziyi: Check
Gratutitous martial arts scenes: CHECK
Philosophical/nihilistic ending:Check
Yuen Woo ping: Check
Use of bright color for symbolism: kind of but not really
Golden finger: No, although Ge You does have this large jade pendant that he uses in creepy ways


Jeff said...

Finger on a stick: Negative?

I'm a bit of a sucker for Hamlet adaptations so will probably look this up. I'm not a big fan of Mel Gibson but I remember enjoying his take on it several years ago. And while it's a completely different story, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is one of my favorite plays / movies ever.

nien said...

hahahaha, i love how the "golden finger" is on the checklist. genius.

lovelesscynic said...

Thank Jeff. He gave me the idea.

exangelena said...

You like Hamlet because everyone dies? (Actually quite spectacular in the Branagh version. I was in elementary or middle school when I saw it and found it ... spectacular.) King Lear (but don't watch any modern adaptations unless you like watching an eye gouging that was excruciating to READ) and Titus Andronicus (features cannibalism, rape and mutilation) also end up with bodies littered all over the floor.
Sorry, a little offtopic I know :)