AKA: The Night Banquet
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Writer: Feng Xiaogang, Sheng Ke Yu
Producer: John Chong, Wang Zhongjun
Cast: Zhang Ziyi, Ge You, Daniel Wu, Zhou Xun, Huang Xiao Ming, Ma Jing Wu, Chun Hoi Liu, Fan Wei, Li Li, Max Zhang Jin
Running Time: 131 min.
Sometimes a film is less than the sum of its parts. The Legend of the Black Scorpion is a lavishly produced, visually sumptuous period film that brings the story of Hamlet to the Ten Kingdoms era of Chinese history. In front of the camera is an attractive cast including Zhang Ziyi, Daniel Wu, and Zhou Xun (Painted Skin remake). The film was directed by Feng Xiaogang (A World Without Thieves) and features action choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping, a living legend who needs no introduction. Yet somehow, this movie left me completely cold.
There’s no denying Hamlet is a difficult story to translate to film. Any screenwriting class will tell you that your protagonist needs to be dynamic – to make choices, react to events, and have an external as well as an internal conflict. The character of Hamlet is all about brooding, pacing, and internal conflict. He spends most of the story paralyzed with indecision. Shakespeare made it work but how do you do that in a 2 hour movie without it seeming, well, boring?
Daniel Wu is a talented actor but I’m not sure he takes well to the part of Hamlet. He spends most of the film looking teary-eyed and stricken with sorrow. Yet he doesn’t do much about it, as per the source text. It probably doesn’t help that that the costume department made his hair is taller than he is. There’s even a silly-looking scene where Zhou Xun combs his long locks for him while his hair is draped in a bubbling pond (I’d like to see one of those installed at my local salon).
Zhang Ziyi is the femme fatale. She’s very good at this kind of wrathful role but I can’t say her character is very likable. She’s manipulative and knows how to use sex as a weapon. Speaking of sex, this film is a bit more risque than I was expecting for what I assume is a Category II film. There’s a lot of caressing and moaning, people ripping their clothes, the King inquiring as to how well Zhang Ziyi’s previous husband – his brother! – satisfied her in bed. I’m not saying this is full on Sex and Zen territory but it comes closer than any other wuxia-style film I’ve seen.
It’s one thing for the story to be glacially-paced but the action suffers too. A bloody opening featuring plenty of severed limbs and decapitated heads builds up false excitement for the rest of the film. I almost wonder if Yuen Woo-Ping had too much creative control here: the fight scenes are so reliant on wires and slow motion that they feel more ballet than combat. Maybe it’s to cover for the fact that Daniel Wu isn’t a martial artist. But the “fights” are way too fluid and pretty. I want to see somebody actually throw a punch – not Swan Lake!
The Legend of Black Scorpion was Hong Kong’s 2006 submission for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. China submitted The Curse of the Golden Flower. Despite their similar Western-ized titles and Shakespearen ambitions, the films couldn’t be farther apart. Curse featured sumptuous drama, a bravado performance from Gong Li, and fantastic fight scenes. In comparison, The Banquet is ornate and removed, like a pristine Chinese vase the viewer is only allowed to admire behind glass. The movie never pulls you in.
By HKFanatic’s Rating: 5/10