The modern Chinese period epic has become a genre targeted primarily at international audiences hungry for exotic Chinese history and dazzling action sequences. With over-produced set pieces and plots tailored for western consumption, these “epics” are no doubt profitable for the Chinese film industry and the stars.
The latest “epic” to receive the treatment is Feng Xiaogang’s The Banquet. A director known for making comedies, this is new territory for Feng as he tries to outdo Zhang Yimou. The film features a very calculated all-star line-up designed to appeal to all segments – Zhang Ziyi for the international market, Daniel Wu for the Far Eastern market, Zhou Xun and Ge You for the Mainland Chinese market. Behind the scenes we have Yuen Woo Ping creating the action scenes, Oscar winner Tan Dun scoring the film with virtuoso pianist Lang Lang performing the music. The film really should be a banquet for the eyes – instead it comes across as an overcooked duck with rough meat and no flavor .
Among many things, The Banquet is also a Chinese version of Hamlet with the ambiguity taken out. We no longer need to figure out whether Claudius has poisoned the king or not; he has. Nor do we need to guess whether Hamlet has a crush on Gertrude; here, the queen was his lover to begin with. Having taken the intrigue out of the plot, it becomes a drag as we wait for the “climatic” finale. Feng has opted to make a “drama” with just a few action sequences. I’m not sure this is wise as I found the film lacking in entertainment value. We expect great sets and costumes – but as I have already mentioned, the film is over-produced. Daniel Wu delivers his usual stiffness and Zhang Ziyi does not have the experience to play the queen. She does not really come across as a manipulative consort but a whore who uses her body to get what she desires.
Of the modern day Chinese “epics” I have seen, my current preference is : House Of Flying Daggers > Hero > The Banquet > The Promise. I look forward to seeing the next mess that will be The Curse Of The Golden Flower, which will at least have Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat.
The verdict : not recommended!