The latest ‘most expensive movie made in China’ – until Zhang Yimou’s Curse Of The Golden Flower at least – is a sumptuous period piece based on a play some English bloke that I must confess I am not all that familiar with (“Hamlet” to be specific). The Emperor is murdered by his brother (Ge You), who claims the throne but seems more interested in claiming the Empress (Zhang Ziyi), who was originally the childhood sweetheart of the old Emperor’s son (Daniel Wu) who some might argue has a more rightful claim to the throne – but has been living an artists’ life with a theatre troupe since his dad married his girl. The new emperor is not about to take the risk he’ll quietly stay out of the way though, and sends assassins to sort him out.
The production definitely looks and feels expensive, with grandiose sets and costumes and the beautiful cinematography that characterized Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House Of Flying Daggers. Indeed, it seems that matching up to Zhang’s works must have weighed heavily on director Feng Xiaogang’s mind, as the cinematography and production design sometimes resembles that in one or the other of Zhang’s films too closely for coincidence, with occasional glimmers of Crouching Tigerness too. The presence of Zhang Ziyi in all the above doesn’t make it harder to draw comparisons.
The Banquet is not a martial arts film, it’s a period (melo)drama with some martial arts scenes. The venerable Yuen Wo-Ping leads the team of action directors, but seems to have been instructed to imitate the choreography of Ching Siu-Tung in Hero and House, producing scenes of choreographed beauty that often looks more like dance than combat. Shots or moves again sometimes look to close to Zhang Yimou’s films for coindence or comfort, and/or too concerned with the aesthetic to be convincingly ‘dangerous’.
The action is not the focus of this film though, it is the machinations of the imperial court and the evocation of a time of splendour, power and riches few modern leaders could hope to surround themselves with (though some may dream of it). In this respect it’s pretty successful, with some fine acting and unquestionably lovely visuals. There are some great moments, but at other times it feels too concerned with how it will be received – especially how it will be compared to ZY’s films, rather than a work of sincerity and conviction. Whilst mostly enjoyable, the film has a few moments that weaken it, is a little over-long and has an ending that doesn’t feel entirely satisfying (and then a second ending that’s plain odd). The end result is a film that’s mostly enjoyable but isn’t going to go down as a classic in too many history books. It ranks a little below HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS and significantly below HERO or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, if Feng Xiaogang would like my opinion on the question.