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Friday, May 18, 2007

'The Banquet'

Feast your eyes on this, but skip dinner


In the Chinese epic "The Banquet," released in Japan as "Jyotei," scarlet is Empress Wan's favorite color, and it seems the entire film takes its cue from her color preference. There are no gray zones or monotone subtleties. Throughout, the story splashes and spatters red — blood, passion, sex, envy and betrayal. And the whole thing lasts a solid two hours. Whether or not you have the stomach for such a repast is a question to ask yourself. In any case, be prepared for a full-scale, lavish assault on the visionary digestive system.

The Banquet Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
The Banquet
Zhang Ziyi in "The Banquet" (c)MEDIA ASIA FILMS (BVI) LTD. HUAYI BROTHERS FILM INVESTMENT CO. LTD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Director: Feng Xiaogang
Running time: 131 minutes
Language: Mandarin
Opens June 2, 2007
[See Japan Times movie listing]

The year is 907 A.D., after the fall of the Tang Dynasty. China is divided into 10 warring states constantly in conflict with one another and among themselves. The emperor of one of these kingdoms has died, and his young wife, Empress Wan (Zhang Ziyi), immediately dispatches a messenger to his son Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu), who is just 4 years her senior and her childhood sweetheart. The prince had been in recluse since his father's marriage to Wan, in a mountain retreat where he had dedicated himself to the perusal of song, dance and poetry. In her message, Wan exhorts Wu Luan to return to the palace, adding that his uncle, Li (You Ge), had seized the throne in his absence. Quicker than Wu Luan could act, however, Li sends a team of assassins to exterminate his nephew, who could be a potential threat to his newly acquired power.

The first sequence of events comprise the most spectacular moments in the film — choreographed by China's Yuen Wo-Ping (of "Matrix" and "Kill Bill" fame). Wu Luan's guards (all wearing white theatrical costumes and masks) do battle with the assassin warriors, encased in black metallic armor. Swords and bayonets are wielded with chilling precision and balletic elegance as skulls are pierced, limbs sliced off and heads decapitated so neatly the blood spurts in long, thin arcs that loop and swirl before seemingly evaporating into air. The prince hides himself deep in the waters of a pond and manages to survive the attack, much to the chagrin of the remaining assassins, who must disembowel themselves en masse to make up for their incompetence.

Directed by Feng Xiaogang, the delirious pace and sheer grace of the opening scenes of "The Banquet" promise much more than the rest of the story delivers. Once the story shifts to the confines of the palace, it slows to a snail's pace of plotting, scheming and intrigue. Blood flows, but it's less choreographed than staidly staged, and the story comes to rely on unspoken words and meaningful glances rather than bodies flying through the air (what would Chinese entertainment be without suspension wires?) and the feverish clank-clank of thick blades. Zhang Ziyi holds up her end, though in places her performance seems strained, as if she's trying to shake off a headache or the heaviness of her silk robes. Zhang replaced Gong Li for the role, and was criticized by the international film media as being too ephemeral, too lightweight for such a grand period piece. Still, when you consider that the late emperor had married his son's childhood girlfriend, and later his brother wastes no time in making her his new bride, her youth and fragility are not only convincing but are assets. During the court scenes where she's regally madeup and attired, Zhang wedges a line between her brows that could be a sign of displeasure, petulance or inward plotting. Her true emotions are impossible to read, which is obviously what Emperor Li finds so alluring. "A beautiful woman is the greatest threat to a man's power," he says, and Wan smiles and tosses off the subtlest of shrugs.

"The Banquet" is based on "Hamlet," with some "Macbeth" undertones thrown in, but what's different from Shakespeare's tragedies is the absence of angst dialogue. Prince Wu Luan doesn't pace the palace worrying whether he should be or not be. In fact, he hardly speaks; he's too busy ducking swords and spears. Wan, for her part, is either purring sweet nothings to her new husband or bathing in a vast pool strewn with red and white rose petals — the only time she lets her guard down and her face sets into lines of despair. Wu almost succumbs to the urge for soliloquy at one point, but Wan cuts him short by making abundantly clear her utter lack of interest in wimps and philosophers. Still, Wan and the prince have a lot of chemistry going; unfortunately, it never develops into actual passion. Too soon after their brief reunion at the palace, the pair become embroiled in political intrigue, largely due to Wan's stealthy maneuverings. The next time they meet turns out to be the last, at a vast banquet hall where an evening of supposed celebrations spiral into gore and tragedy in true Shakespearean fashion (albeit with few spoken words). Any nourishment? Out of the question.



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