The Banquet

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It has been a little while dear readers since I have given you a review.  Believe it or not I have been deeply buried in some TV entertainment from the US of A (Game of Thrones, a very unexpected recommendation).  But worry not, I have a couple of new items for you all, and I will start with “The Banquet”.

My route to this film is a bit unusual.  I actually wanted to watch another of director Feng Xiaogeng’s films, but it was suggested to me that I might want to try a couple of his other earlier works out first.  I’m always willing to check out other people’s recommendations, so I found myself a copy.  “The Banquet” is to some degree a Chinese version of Hamlet, but given a few tweaks, and frankly not exactly beholden to the story.  Prince Wuluan (Daniel Wu) is a pretty reluctant royal.  His father the Emperor has been murdered by his Uncle (You Ge), and not only usurped the throne, but also taken his brothers wife (Ziyi Zhang) to become his Empress also.  To complicate matters more – Ziyi was once Wu’s childhood sweetheart, but was taken by his Father.  Wuluan has distanced himself from court, preferring to spend his days working on his love of Drama and Dance.  However, the murder of his father does make him the legitimate heir, and therefore various parties either want him to ascend to the throne, or to assassinate him.  So onwards we go, with the expected machinations and murder attempts, which in true Shakespearian fashion means no-one is left standing in the final reel.

To be honest this felt like a film of two halves to me.  The first hour felt like a complete slog, with far too much talking and exposition, albeit with a couple of very nice, almost dreamlike, action set-pieces.  But somewhere around the hour mark, the film finds its feet, and it becomes far more interesting, dealing with the various double crossing and selfish plans going on at court.

It is at all points utterly beautiful.  As I just said, some of the slo-mo action scenes are lovely, but also there is a decayed opulence to the whole proceedings.  The Palace itself is gorgeous, but there is a sense of the whole era about to come tumbling down.  Look how distant everyone is from each other at the Palace when compare to the closeness and hustle obvious amongst the normal populace.

The film does take many of its cues from Hamlet, but luckily is not totally beholden to them.  In fact, Wuluan is hardly the central character, spending most of his on-screen time behind a mask, instead we are treated to a good performance by the complicated Empress of Ziyi.  We are never quite sure of her motives – is she attempting to save and restore her young love to the Throne?  Is she complicit in the bad things going on, or is she fighting against them?  She is a master manipulator, but until the final scene we are never quite sure of her motives.

You Ge’s Emperor is equally impressive, taking an obviously corrupt man, but he is also genuinely in love with his Empress, and not wholly comfortable with some of the acts he has to take.  I also really liked Xun Zhou’s Qing, a lady in waiting who also holds a candle for our Prince.

The Banquet itself which takes up the final third of the film is an exercise in tension.  All our players are finally on screen simultaneously, each with differing murderous intent.  As each attempt to expose the truth or remove a player from the game fails, the tension racks up very nicely.

And then we have the end, which must be controversial.  We have one person left standing, and we find their true colours exposed.  And then they are murdered, by someone unknown.  This could have been awfully unsatisfying, but I actually rather liked it.  It showed that there was even more going on than we ever got to see, and matched up well with the idea of masks and hidden agendas that were being explored throughout the film.

To sum up, I eventually really liked this.  So yes, it is certainly recommended.

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