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Original Title:
Ye yan

China 2006

Epic, Drama, Wuxia

Feng Xiaogang

Zhang Ziyi
Ge You
Daniel Wu
Zhou Xun
Ma Jingwu
Huang Xiaoming
Zeng Qiusheng
Xu Xiyan
Zhou Zhonghe
Liu Yanbin

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The Banquet

Story: Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) falls in love with the girl his father, the emporer, takes as his new empress. Since empress Wan (Zhang Ziyi) is now his mother, Wu Luan flees the palace and finds accommodation in a school of arts, where he lives the life of a scholar, singing and dancing the day away. However, one day Wu gets the message that his father died under mysterious circumstances and that his uncle Li (Ge You) has now ascended the throne. Since Li is quite aware of the fact that the prince is the rightful ruler of the country, he sends out assassins to take Wu Luan's life. The prince can escape the attack of the assassins and eventually returns to the palace. There, he has to understand that empress Wan has already accepted her new role at the side of his uncle and isn't willing to help the prince take his rightful place on the throne. Nevertheless, she helps him out on several occassions to escape the many ambushes of the emperor as she seemingly still has feelings for Wu. Yet, it soon turns out that she has her own plans, weaving a web of intrigues to bring down the emperor. She is supported by Yin (Huang Xiaoming) and his father, a high-ranking official, whose daughter Qing (Zhou Xun) she has in her hands. Meanwhile, Qing develops feelings of her own towards the prince, who himself doesn't seem to know how to proceed to successfully claim his rightful place on the throne.
The schemes and lust for power of the court's officials culminate in a climax at a banquet the emperor gives, which will decide over the future of the ruling dynasty.

Review: "The Banquet" is Feng Xiaogang's much discussed costume epic drama, which is loosely based on William Shakespeare's "Hamlet". Feng's movie is a lavishly produced stage play and the director put quite some effort into getting the best of their profession to work on his movie. Still, this doesn't save the drama from its astonishing mediocrity. The characters can never move us, their fate never touches us and everything on screen seems surprisingly cold and uninteresting. The only thing that keeps the film going are some decent efforts of the actors and a wrap-up that surely can be attracting. Sadly, the great costumes, pompous sets and the beautiful cinematography can't hide the fact, that "The Banquet" is merely a passable commercial try to please western audiences, who somehow grew fond of this kind of costume drama stuff. Nevertheless, Feng Xiaogang can never achieve the level of expertise of a Zhang Yimou - not even in the slightest.

Even though the plot might only be loosely based on "Hamlet", there are still enough junctions and excessive borrowing by the scriptwriters when it comes to the storyline. Which by itself should have been a guarantee for the story to be quite appealing and touching. Unfortunately, the director misses to provide us with the opportunity to weave an emotional bond to the characters. Wu Luan just remains the aimless, indecisive prince, who is always absorbed in thoughts, which means that Daniel Wu ("Protege", "New Police Story") is more or less portraying Hamlet, while Zhang Ziyi ("House of the Flying Daggers", "Hero") embodies the empress, who always remains somewhat enigmatic and seems to be planning her own scheme.
Daniel Wu is always a bit too wooden and unrefined in his portrayal, which may also be the fault of the scriptwriters. Zhang Ziyi on the other hand shows again what of an arrogant and sly character she is able to depict. However, we have seen her taking on this role often enough, and it slowly becomes tedious. Even the more as Empress Wan is actually quite an interesting character and could have been much more in the end. At the beginning she is just driven by the desire to survive in the role she has to play at court, until she finally realizes what an amount of power she is actually wielding. She eventually gives in to her desire to become more powerful, which makes her the movie's center and, surprisingly, Daniel Wu merely a supporting actor.

Sadly, Zhang Ziyi is just too young for the role to really make an impression on us as the empress. Feng Xiaogang should have gone with Gong Li or Maggie Cheung for the role, who he even intended to cast, but eventually couldn't realize. The only real achievement of the actors comes from Ge You ("Lifetimes", "A World without Thieves"), who plays a decent villian as the new emperor. He forges smart schemes to get rid of his rival prince Wu Luan, yet has no control over the things his wife is doing at his court as his love towards her makes him blind.
We are never really sure what attitude and feelings empress Wan actually has for Wu Luan, but it seems that she is trying to protect him from any harm with her web of intrigues. However, it soon becomes obvious that Wan's desire for power will most likely end in a catastrophe, which has its climax at a banquet, that all the protagonists are attending, so that the drama has to follow its inevitable course. Here, it becomes especially apparent how much the film has in common with a modern stage play, even the more when Qing appears at the banquet, who manages to be the only one to arouse some feelings in the viewer with her love confession towards Wu Luan. Furthermore, Zhou Xun ("Perhaps Love"), who is playing Qing, can once more prove her extraordinary singing talent.

All the splendor at display, the monumental pictures and the great costumes still can't hide the fact, that Feng simply missed to give his movie a heart. Most of the time the film just runs by without any impact on us, and if the pictures weren't that appealing, the slow pacing and some pretty trivial dialogues would have been almost somniferous.
Moreover, the many parts of the movie never add to a whole. The editing of the film is at times quite screwed up and even the soundtrack can't play into the hands of Feng's work. Oscar-winner and composer Tan Dun ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Hero") really didn't create something you can call a bad score, presumably he isn't able to do that with his expertise, but the many piano pieces played by China's number 1 pianist Lang Lang are too western in style and oftentimes don't fit to the film in terms of pacing.
Moreover, the many fight scenes scattered throughout the movie are superfluous. Yuen Woo-Ping once again choreographed some nice fights that are easy for the eyes to look at, which yet also feature lots of slow-motion, and are actually absolutely unneccessary for story development etc. They seem to be in the film merely for the purpose that there are supposed to be some beautiful fight scenes in a typical Chinese costume epic. At least the fights are pretty bloody at times, and despite the fact that there is no reason for them at all to be in the movie, they serve as some eye candy, though.

It's obvious from the very beginning how this drama is gonna end. Not only is "The Banquet" based on the story of "Hamlet", no, Chinese costume epics themselves also have to adhere to the rules of their own genre. Therefore, there is no surprise here when it comes to the finale, and it also becomes quite apparent here how much we care about the fate of the protagonists. Not at all. We never feel entangled into the events on screen or emotionally touched by them. In the end, the film is just dazzling with its sheer cinematographic beauty, which, however, also looks too artificial at times. Everything in this movie looks like a work of quality, this ranges from the already mentioned grande sets to the astonishingly well executed CGI-effects. Nonetheless, when it comes to it, "The Banquet" is a disappointing viewing experience in almost any respect, as style once again triumphs over substance. Feng's work feels unforgivably cold and without any meaning. If you are interested in intrigues and betrayal at the Chinese royal court, then you should watch "Curse of the Golden Flower", which is by far the better movie to choose.
Feng delivers a failed attempt to combine commercial cinema with a stage play. Beautiful to look at most of the time, but never really entertaining, this movie surely will please only few fans of the genre.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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