In turbulent 1st century China, Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu), devastated by his father's sudden death, is living away from the Imperial palace. Seeking refuge in the ancient art of music and dance. Wu Lan, the same age as his father's young widow, Wan (Ziyi Zhang) and attracted to her, is stunned by her impending marriage to his uncle (You Ge). And he soon realizes that his life is in danger. After warding off an assassination attempt, he returns to the palace to avenge himself by killing his uncle, whom he believes has murdered his father. Here, he finds himself trapped in a love triangle: on the one hand, there is Wan, on the other, Qing Nu (Zhou Xun), the innocent daughter of the conniving Grand Marshall (Jingwu Mau). Qing Nu is desperately in love with Wu Luan, ready to sacrifice her life for him. When Emperor Li proclaims a banquet, Wu Luan realises it is the time to strike. Meanwhile, Empress Wan and the Grand Marshall also have plans ......
Review by Louise Keller:
First and foremost, The Banquet is a visual feast, with sumptuous costumes, exquisite production design and vast landscapes. Poetry and art are the means by which filmmaker Feng Xiaogang tells his epic period drama about power and desire, while the exotically beautiful Ziyi Zhang is the ornamental centrepiece in the story's themes of betrayal, jealousy and passion. Pomp and ceremony counter the film's brutal violence in equal parts, with stunningly choreographed martial arts sequences. But for all its visual splendour, The Banquet has none of the pathos or originality of Crouching Tiger, nor does it endear us to any of its characters through its overlong 140 minute running time.
It is the sensory elements that make an indelible impact - from the eye-boggling, ornateness to the magnificent music which accompanies the visuals. Many scenes are like paintings carefully arranged on a huge canvass. There is real drama as the camera pans away to reveal a perfectly positioned, blood red cape and train. Red and gold play an integral part in the colour scheme: red is the flame of desire, while gold represents glory. What a beautiful sight as Zhang wades into an oversize bath filled with rose petals. Or the whispering bamboos, the autumnal colours, the crisp, white expanse of a snowy landscape and the dash of a coronation ceremony.
Murder, foul play, scheming and deception make heavy imprints, while the flush of true love is fleeting. Zhang is a delicate flower, showcasing the evil, scheming nature of her character with great potency, while Daniel Wu is appealing as the nephew who she covets. On a purely visual level, it is easy to be swept away, but emotionally our appetites are left wanting.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
An often stagey, and indeed, always superbly staged Chinese historical epic with a nod to Shakespeare's Hamlet, The Banquet combines elaborate action with elaborate romance and Imperial betrayals. Ziyi Zhang plays the young wife of the late Emperor, whose son Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) is her own age. Wu Lan's uncle Li takes over the Empire and there is good reason to suspect that he caused his brother's death. But in a pragmatic decision about her future stakes, Wan marries him, much to Wu Lan's distress.
This sets up the basic elements of the story, and the jealousies that swirl about the Palace are only just beginning. Emperor Li fears that Wu Lan will learn the truth and try to kill him; what he doesn't know is that Wu Lan is not the only danger.
When the young and pretty Qing Nu (Zhou Xun), steps between her and Wu Lan, the jealous and powerful Wu Lan punishes her. Ironically enough, she also causes even greater but unintended punishment later, while plotting to kill Emperor Li. As you can see, the relationships drive the action, and the human condition is explored in every direction.
I'd like to say the film is fabulous - and it certainly looks and sounds fabulous - but the talented Xiangong Feng (whose film A World Without Thieves is a personal favourite of recent Chinese cinema) makes heavy going of this, not helped by a sometimes overwrought script. Perhaps it's in the nature of the Chinese period film, but there are clunky scenes and an overtly self conscious arthouse flourish to the direction. Sometimes this works, often it doesn't. Blood letting is stylised, sexuality is kept tame despite promises of steam, and the pace sags when it should sparkle. But it's a gorgeous misfire and nothing for anyone to be ashamed of.
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BANQUET, THE (MA)
CAST: Ziyi Zhang, Daniel Wu, Xun Zhou, You Ge, Jingwu Ma, Xiaoming Hunag
PRODUCER: John Chong, Zhongjun Wang
DIRECTOR: Xiangong Feng
SCRIPT: Gangjian Qui, Heyu Sheng
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Li Zhang
EDITOR: Miaomiao Liu
MUSIC: Tan Dun
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Timmy Yip
OTHER: Woo-ping Yuen (action choreographer)
RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: BVI
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 6, 2007