The Banquet (2006)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-01-28
There are a lot of estimable works that use some of the images, plots devices, language and even characters from “Hamlet”. “Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard, the opera “Hamlet” by Ambrose Thomas, a work whose beauty I have yet to grasp but which retains a tenuous hold in the standard repertory in Europe, the Kurosawa masterpiece “The Dead Sleep Well” are among them. “The Banquet” is now part of this list. The parallels to Shakespeare’s masterpiece are obvious: Crown Prince Wu Luan is Hamlet, Qing could be Ophelia, Empress Wan has some but not many of the characteristics of Gertrude, the Emperor is Claudius (probably the most analogous of the characters), General Yin closely resembles Laertes and while Minister Yin is structurally the same as Polonius, his character has much more nobility of spirit than Shakespeare’s old windbag.

Some of the action and tropes—the play within the play, the attempted banishment and assassination of the Crown Prince, the use of poison—in “The Banquet” are also present in “Hamlet”. But this movie, like all of the works mentioned above, has to rise and fall on its own merits. Whether it is based on, influenced by or refers to either one of the cornerstones of drama is immaterial—what the writers, director, actors and others put on the screen is what counts.

“The Banquet” consists of a number of dishes which don’t really make a meal—in this case revenge is meal that is served piping hot but with very little reflection on the enormity crimes committed by the usurping Emperor. This is a real problem because it deflects our interest from the Crown Prince who should be the center of attention even when off screen. The Emperor, who is written and played as evil incarnate, is the most energetic character while Qing and her father are the most sympathetic. The Empress comes across as confused and ambiguous, an effect for which Fang Xiaogang was most likely striving. She is fanatically devoted to Emperor Li because of his skill in love making but hates him as the murderer of her husband and illegal claimant to the throne. Both Qing and General Yin are too good to be true, which is not a drawback in a drama in which everyone is plotting against everyone else. The Pharmacist was a brilliant creation, a deadly tool who could be used by whomever had the power or could pay his price. The last scene between him and the Empress was a subtle misdirection that only became clear at the very end of the movie.

That there was real suspense at the climax of the film shows the skill and creativity of the filmmakers. The schemes became clear to the audience just a beat before they did to the plotters, including the red herrings that were supposed to distract the real targets from danger—and there were several targets since there were several plots, some of which became apparent only as they unfolded. This was at least partially offset by the clumsiness in depicting the sexual chemistry between the Emperor and his new consort. The extended intimate scenes between them may have been to set up how much Empress Wan hated her brother-in-law and how she was able to fool him but even if so they were dull and took up too much screen time.

The cinematography, costume design and set design were all lush, beautiful to see and just about perfectly executed. There were a lot of extremely long robes that seem appropriate, especially when shot from above and the use of deep red and pure white was telling. The awful power wielded by the Emperor, who could sentence someone to be publicly beaten to death, was well illustrated by bowing and scraping of everyone in his presence, including victorious generals and long serving members of the nobility. The use of masks was especially well done, both as symbols of deceit and artifice and also as masks themselves, hiding the identity of the person lurking behind.

The score by Tan Dun was terrific—he writes to film as well as anyone currently working. It was always appropriate to what was happening onscreen but didn’t call attention to itself. The music itself is worth the price of the disc, something that becomes clear if you listen without watching.

Reviewer Score: 7