Friday, December 21, 2007

Glued to the past

(By Evan Williams | December 15, 2007 )

The Banquet (MA15+)
2½ stars
Limited national release
Hunting and gathering (Ensemble, C'est tout) (M)
4 stars
Limited national release
A FEW months ago it was Curse of the Golden Flower, a lurid Chinese melodrama about imperial palace intrigues and the poisoning of an unhappy empress, spiced with spectacular combat scenes and gorgeous pictorial detail.

It struck me at the time as a combination of Peyton Place and Macbeth.

Now we have The Banquet, another lurid Chinese melodrama involving imperial palace intrigues and deaths by poisoning.

This flamboyant and juicy entertainment, directed by Feng Xiaogang, has been touted as a Chinese version of Hamlet. Why is it, I wonder, that Chinese filmmakers are so obsessed with ancient rituals and the barbaric excesses of bygone tyrants (many of them fictional concoctions)? I suppose it's because they're safe subjects. No filmmaker will get into trouble for showing how corrupt life was in the late Tang dynasty of the 10th century.

In a society still living in the shadow of Mao Zedong, whose memory is preserved, even venerated, amid the trappings of a booming market economy, it would be difficult to set a film in modern China without offering some mild criticism of the present regime. It's not a problem that arises with medieval action fantasies, offering unlimited scope for bloodthirsty plots, lavish interiors and hordes of digitalised extras in the crowd scenes.

I must say the prospect of a Chinese Hamlet was intriguing. In the version I watched there was no on-screen credit for Shakespeare but, then, not much use is made of his plot, let alone his poetry. The borrowed elements are a jumble of loosely related ideas and barely recognisable characters. Wu Luan, the Hamlet figure (Daniel Wu), is a pale and ineffectual version of the melancholy prince, and we scarcely see him.

Recalled home with the news that his uncle has usurped the throne and his father is dead, Wu Luan survives an assassination attempt on his homeward journey and arrives to find a palace in turmoil. The Ghost (an armed figure in bloodstained helmet) reveals the true circumstances of the former emperor's death. Forget that story about a scorpion stinging him during his afternoon nap; he was poisoned by scorpion venom poured into his ear.

It may be wise, if you see The Banquet, not to look too closely for parallels with the play. Often the expected resemblances don't appear and a story already burdened with twists and complications will begin to seem more obscure than it really is. The central figure isn't the grieving prince but the new empress (Zhang Ziyi), the most alluring of Xiaogang's cast, who gives no indication that she's the mother of Wu Luan (if indeed she's meant to be). Polonius, or his equivalent, isn't the wretched, rash, intruding fool we know from the play but a wise and heroic minister (Jingwu Ma), whose beautiful daughter Qing (Xun Zhou), the Ophelia character, seems to be half in love with her brother (Xiaoming Huang), who may or may not be Laertes.

The play scene -- perhaps the best thing in the film -- is staged as part of a rehearsal for the empress's coronation, but while the emperor seems smitten by guilt during the performance it's never made clear what's bothering him.

Perhaps none of this matters. For all its pretentiousness, its impenetrable longueurs, the film remains a splendid spectacle. The debt to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is no more blatant than it was in Curse of the Golden Flower or in any number of other recent martial arts extravaganzas. The final scenes of carnage and betrayal may have been more moving if we cared about the characters. But they are never more than puppets in an artificial landscape, and

the fact that Wu Luan and others often appear with masked faces makes them even more distant and unreal.

It will be a great relief when Chinese filmmakers return to the real world. I've had my fill of leaping gladiators, grisly tortures and balletic swordfights filmed in slow-motion. Hamlet's advice to the players to hold the mirror up to nature has been sadly unheeded in The Banquet. The result is more like inexplicable dumb shows and noise


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