Okay, a little bit of background… Wuxia is a broad generic term for tales of martial artists and fighters, concerning themselves with the codes and ethics of their varied disciplines, which began as literature thousands of years ago and gradually spread to other art forms as their popularity grew. Inevitably, this would reach the film world. Although they had been around since the early days of cinema in China, it was mainly after the massive success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 that there was suddenly a greater global appetite for wuxia films. In 2006, director Feng Xiaogang took his first crack at the historical epic wuxia movie with The Banquet.
In 10th Century China, amidst the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, the imperial family is in crisis. Crown Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) puts himself in exile after his father takes his love Wan (Ziyi Zhang) as his Empress. Whilst gone, the Emperor’s brother Li murders his brother, taking the throne and Empress. After an unsuccessful attempt on Wu Luan by Imperial assassins, he returns to the court. When Wu Luan learns of his uncle’s treachery, he decides to avenge his father’s death.
As I said, post-Crouching Tiger, wuxia films became big business to the rest of the movie-going world. In order to meet this fresh demand for big themes and superb fight sequences using wire-work, many filmmakers appropriately looked to the past for inspiration, adapting wuxia stories from long ago or dramatising events and legends from the country’s history. Zhang Yimou made the next big splash with 2002’s Hero, telling the tale of an assassin’s attempt to kill the man who would become China’s first emperor. What this film did was bring another prominent element to the genre: unbelievable cinematography and vivid colour. A few years later, there came another three big films that sat in almost direct competition with each other on the international stage: Chen Kaige responded with The Promise in 2005, Zhang Yimou came back with Curse of the Golden Flower in 2006, as did Feng Xiaogang with The Banquet.
What set Feng Xiaogang’s work apart from the other two films was the source material. The Promise was based on a wuxia romance story from the 9th Century, and Curse of the Golden Flower was based on a 1934 play called Thunderstorm by Chinese playwright Cao Yu, but The Banquet got its basis from a more Western source… William Shakespeare. The Banquet is basically a loose adaptation of Hamlet, with action transposed to the Tang Dynasty, albeit set in a fictional Imperial household. The adaptation was handled by Qiu Gangjian and Sheng Heyu, who have done a very good job of shifting the action to a different time and place, although such specifics were never really what Hamlet was about. Thematically, the story is about murder, betrayal, lust, madness, familial discord, death… there’s a reason it’s often considered to be the greatest play ever written.
However, I did say it was a “loose” adaptation, so there have been several changes made. To begin with, the role of Gertrude has been altered significantly, giving her some of the ambitious scheming normally associated with Lady Macbeth. Also, she has been made younger (four years younger than the Crown Prince), though this will partially come from the fact the role was turned down by Gong Li and accepted by Ziyi Zhang. There is also the extra dimension that she and Wu Luan were once together, but the Emperor took her for himself, turning Wu Luan’s girlfriend into his stepmother. This creates a completely different dynamic between the two, which does give the characters a new set of motivations to work in. I’ve heard that some felt that this change actually acted towards undermining the purity of the relationship between Wu Luan and Qing, who would be the Ophelia of the piece, but whilst I think I see their point, I disagree. The triangle created is handled really quite well, with Wu Luan driven by both vengeance and the possibility of winning Wan back, thereby ignoring Qing, who so obviously wants to be with him. All of this is echoed nicely by a song Wu Luan learns, about a love lost between two people because one doesn’t notice the existence of the other. He believes Qing won’t understand the meaning, and that Wan will. Wan also uses Wu Luan’s feelings for her as a bargaining chip with Emperor Li, as well as against both Qing and Wu Luan himself. Really, Gertrude just became more savage and power-hungry.
There is much of the structure of Hamlet retained in the film, with the initial murder of the King/Emperor by his usurping brother, the quest for revenge by the Prince, the play-within-a-play scene and, of course, the big final banquet of the title all utilised well. However, there are enough changes in the piece to create its own story. Indeed, if spend the film trying to find the Hamlet in everything, you’ll just end up confusing yourself.
What director Feng Xiaogang does with The Banquet is offer something of a comparatively sombre film when measured against its contemporary rivals. With both The Promise and Curse of the Golden Flower, these films tried to recapture the success of Hero and House of Flying Daggers with the vibrant colour and rich visual stylisation. Feng Xiaogang’s vision is less ostentatious, more modest. There is still a great use of colours (red is commonly used in denotation of blood, passion, desire), but they are surrounded by a much darker setting, which makes them stand out more. Also, whilst there is still a great deal of fighting and violent bloodshed, it spends more time as a dark drama, resting more with the head than the sword.
There also rests a great deal of ambiguity to the whole, with much left unsaid or unfinished by the film. For example, there is a scene that would suggest that Wu Luan, in an act of frustrated anger, rapes Qing. He chases her, pulls at her clothes, and his intentions are more than clear. Even Qing obviously seems to be trying to escape from this attack, but a dissolve shows the two post-assault, Wu Luan being cradled in Qing’s arms. Did she submit, or was the whole act by force? We never really find out. Certainly, Qing desire to be with Wu Luan never diminishes. Also, the better-known point of ambiguity comes from the ending. Now, I won’t give away anything, but suffice to say that the final act of violence comes from an unknown source. Ideas and opinions vary, from handmaidens to fallen generals to the ghost of Wu Luan’s father.
Given the weight of the role, Ziyi Zhang stands up very well as Wan. She’s always been seen as very spirited and rebellious characters, but there’s rarely been much in the way of layers to them. Here, Wan is a very textured character, appearing as subservient wife, embittered widow, scheming villain and seductress. That’s a fair amount for a fairly young actress to handle, but she does a fine job. Given that Wan has become the primary character of the piece, Daniel Wu has less to do as Wu Luan, but he still does well, projecting his sense of loss and quiet anger nicely. You Ge, mainstay of Feng Xiaogang projects, starts the film well, as the cruel and lustful Emperor Li, but gradually diminishes in power as the character seems to soften. It’s true that he comes to feel more secure in his position and, to his peril, lets his guard down, but it feels more like this has happened because of vulnerability as opposed to hubris. It feels like a misstep, but not a major one. Perhaps the best performance comes from Xun Zhou as Qing, the handmaiden in love with Wu Luan. It’s wonderfully underplayed, but you still feel all of the love, hurt and defiance in her character. She is genuinely the most sympathetic and affecting person on show, and Xun Zhou makes everything she can from the role.
When The Banquet was on release, it seemed to get rather buried between the two bigger films that were released on either side. The Promise was, when it came out, the single most expensive film China had produced since 2002’s Hero. This was surpassed again the next year by Curse of the Golden Flower. However, The Promise was something of a failure, making little impact elsewhere in the world. Curse of the Golden Flower, with its higher production values and more internationally recognised cast, received greater publicity and attention. It’s rather a shame that The Banquet didn’t get as much of a release since it certainly deserves a wider audience, with some fine performances, solid direction, and an intriguing story.
If you can, really try and give this one a go. It does deserve more attention that it received.