Feng Xiaogang, “Ye Yan” aka “Legend of the Black Scorpion” aka “The Banquet” (2006)
An adaptation of William Shakespeare’s famous revenge play “Hamlet”, this lavish Chinese swords-n-somersaultery production is more aptly if cruelly summarised with the title of another of the Bard’s plays: Much Ado About Nothing. Artier-than-thou cinematography, hammy slo-mo marital arts aerobatics and clever computer animation that can make a cast of hundreds and thousands out of a few actors and flicks ketchup blood into graceful arcs of abstract-art paint bulk up a soap opera plot that becomes yet another chapter in ancient Imperial China’s history of political intrigue, skulduggery and assassinations. The pity of Chinese history operas like this one is that they tend to reinforce a view of Chinese politics through the ages as very personal and dynastic, revolving always around clashes of personalities, ongoing vendettas and disputes, and don’t admit any possibility for political change brought about by social, cultural or technological changes within Chinese society or outside, bar the odd barbarian invasion from north of the Great Wall. In this respect, the films have a very limited and quite conservative viewpoint.
Beneath the layers of fairy floss, the plot hews closely to the original play: the Old Emperor is deposed and murdered by his brother (Ge You) who then claims the throne as Emperor Li and takes the Old Emperor’s widow, Empress Wan (Zhang Ziyi), as his wife. Originally Empress Wan was the Old Emperor’s foster daughter whom his son, Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu), was secretly in love with but when she grew up, the old guy made her his wife which led to the Prince fleeing the palace to reside in southern China, studying music and dance. On hearing of his father’s death, cad though he was, the Prince returns at once to the Imperial Palace, thwarting an assassination attempt launched by Emperor Li on the way. Once back at home, Wu Luan rekindles his dormant romance with Empress Wan and becomes emotionally tangled with a lady-in-waiting Qing Nu (Zhou Xun) who is engaged to marry him. The Prince also sets about investigating his father’s death and discovers the horrific way in which he died and who killed him. Staging a play at Empress Wu’s second coronation as empress proper, Wu Luan exposes Emperor Li’s role in the murder, and for that he is banished under heavy guard, among whom the Emperor has planted assassins, to the northern lands of the Khitan people. Wu Luan evades death and exile thanks to Qing Nu’s brother who had previously been sent to a distant province as governor. In the meantime, Empress Wu plots with Qing Nu’s father, the grand marshall, and her brother to bump off Emperor Li.
Feeling secure in his position, Emperor Li holds a banquet at which Qing Nu and a troupe of masked dancers (with Wu Luan hidden among them) perform a sad love song. Just before performing the song, the Emperor offers a goblet of wine to Qing Nu which she accepts – and which neither of them knows has had a secret ingredient added by the Empress herself, who looks on in horror as Qing Nu gulps down the lot …
The utter wipe-out which follows in which only the grand marshall survives is at least true to the play though Empress Wu proves to be more Goneril than Gertrude overall. For those who don’t know, Goneril is the oldest daughter of King Lear in the Shakespearean play of the same name who kills her younger sister Regan with poison and helps to cause the downfall of her entire family. At the end of the film, we don’t know who’s in charge of the empire and must assume that warlords are going to fight over who’s going to be the next lucky Emperor to preside over a new lot of squabbling and scheming relatives. Like any other self-respecting soap opera, the script introduces new twists and turns up to the end but says nothing original or new about the nature of revenge or how it can backfire on those who take it up. Those wanting to understand more about “Hamlet” because they’ve got to write essays on the play for final school exams won’t find any new interpretations of its politics.
The action actually bogs right down during the drawn-out fight scenes so the film flows less well than it should. The artistic presentation is more a cumbersome burden than an asset for the skeletal plot which goes into detailed overdrive only during the last 30 minutes. With the exception of lead actor Zhang, the actors have little to work with on their characters and their efforts are uneven: Ge is convincing enough as the suave, conniving Emperor Li and Zhou is touching as the innocent Qing Nu but Daniel Wu as the Prince seems a bit one-dimensional compared to Ge and Zhang. Zhang as Empress Wu is miscast: she looks too young and bland, and her voice is too youthful and sweet, for her to be convincing as a duplicitous Empress. I really think the role should have gone to an actor of the calibre and experience of Gong Li, Maggie Cheung or Michelle Yeoh; it’s a bit creepy as well to have the Empress Wu married to the Old Emperor, in love with his son and then married off and also warming to the Old Emperor’s brother!
Lovely to look at but all those special effects and the colour can’t cover over a skimpy story that adds nothing new to the audience’s understanding of revenge and how it undoes everyone caught up in it, and which manages to turn the politics of “Hamlet” into a soap opera about dysfunctional families.