Somehow, the historical martial arts epic has become the Chinese answer to the Merchant Ivory film, steeped in prestige, crafted for international consumption, and skipping over complicated contemporary issues to revel in an earlier time period when people wore prettier, more complicated clothing. "The Banquet," directed by Feng Xiaogang, is a Gertrude-centric "Hamlet" transposed to tumultuous 10th century China and cut through with generous dollops of balletic, wired-assisted fight scenes. It’s a categorically sumptuous film — from cavernous palace halls to the elegant unfurling of blood in forest stream, there’s no chance at visual extravagance passed up. It’s not enough to make up for the film’s almost complete lack of vitality, but it sure is nice to look at.
"The Banquet" has more than a little in common with Zhang Yimou‘s "Curse of the Golden Flower" — both are focused on women furiously manuevering for their own survival in the viperous, gilded courts of ancient China, and both were supposed to star Gong Li, who passed on "The Banquet" due to scheduling conflicts. In her place is Zhang Ziyi, who’s seems more like a kitten playing at being a big cat as Empress Wan, once a court maiden in love with Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu), but chosen as a bride to the emperor instead, causing the unhappy Wu Luan to leave the court to immerse himself in theater and music. At the film’s open, the former emperor has been murdered with the "Hamlet" poison of choice (ear!), and Wan has taken up with his murderer, the new emperor (Ge You), in order to protect herself and Wu Luan. Various machinations and assassination attempts follow as the prince arrives at court, culminating in a midnight banquet at which everyone’s agendas are bloodily revealed.
The famous choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (the man behind "The Matrix" films as well as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and dozens of others) put together the action sequences, which director Feng shoots in slow motion so luxuriant it’s hard not to giggle. Poetic? Sure. Silly? Totally. When a genre is shoulder to shoulder with self-parody, it might be time to give it a rest. Nevertheless, Zhang and Wu have excellent thwarted chemistry, even expressed via a loving swordfight. Zhou Xun (of "Suzhou River") gets the best (if also, in retrospect, most foolish) death scene in a film heavy with them as the Ophelia character.
"The Banquet" will screen at the IFC Center June 22 at 8:15pm and June 27 at 8:45pm. It has no US distribution.