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Banquet DVD


Legend Of The Black Scorpion
cast: Ziyi Zhang, You Ge, Daniel Wu, Xun Zhou, and Jingwu Ma

director: Feng Xiaogang

126 minutes (n/r) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Dragon Dynasty NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Peter Schilling
Inspired by Hamlet, this easternised version of the Bard's play has all the visual polish and splendid production values that we have come to expect from the highest calibre of modern Asian cinema. However, this particular movie possesses very little of the magnetic thespian presences, commensurate emotional gravitas, or truthfully dramatic impacts, needed - so obviously - for any successful rendering of such powerfully tragic storytelling.

Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang - at once, ethereal, beguiling, magnificent; capable of innocence or wickedness - had a great run of luck from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (aka: Wo hu cang long, 2000), to Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005)... via Rush Hour 2, and The Legend Of Zu (aka: Shu shan zheng zhuan), taking in Musa The Warrior, Jet Li's Hero (aka: Ying xiong), the superior House Of Flying Daggers (aka: Shi mian mai fu), and Kar Wai Wong's eccentric 2046 (where, confusingly, Zhang's character was named Bai Ling!), but her good fortune stops cold with this, sadly mediocre Shakespearean venture, in which she portrays an Empress of the Tang dynasty.

Legend Of The Black Scorpion (aka: Ye yan), retitled 'The Banquet' for UK release, is not a bad film. It showcases plenty of eye-catching set designs, sumptuously colourful costumes, magnificent camerawork, and quite stunning martial arts choreography - by master Yuen Wo-ping, but there's a tiredness here creeping into view from around hidden edges, noticeable at every smart turn of phrase, every astonishing balletic motion, or each uncompromising twist of dark fate.

dancing girls in The Banquet

This brings a nagging sense of déjà vu, like watching some kind of prideful action replay. Perhaps your reviewer has just seen far too many of these period epics in recent years? Grand, this one certainly is, but it's otherwise guilty of being merely grandiose while its director, Feng Xiaogang - maker of Chinese war drama, Assembly (aka: Ji jie hao) - is evidently striving for grandeur. Weakly appealing with its swish aesthetics, chuntering through stagey political machinations, it only smoulders when it should be throwing out sparks.

Tabloid and online reviews gush with a weight-of-water praise, and there's no denying the picture has moments of extravagance, a scattering of subtle diversions, a wealth of impressive swordplay upscaling familiar wu xia traditions like a VHS format converted into hi-def content. But it's all too much of a burden of acclaim for this film's stars to carry. Quirks, strangeness and charm, aside, filming of this night banquet deploys a nexus of cultural aphorisms plumped into decadent obesity with overuse. It presents a rich tapestry but the dyes have faded. It speaks volumes about human arrogance, belligerence, cowardice, shallow desires; and then heartbreaking echoes in the halls seem genteel or sanctimonious when all the betrayals, poisonings, and gaspingly-conclusive final revelations ought to appear scandalous, and royally so.

DVD extras: the main disc includes an expert commentary by Hong Kong cinephile Bey Logan. The second disc has Master Of Ceremonies: an exclusive interview with Feng Xiaogang; Warrior Prince: exclusive interview with leading man Daniel Wu; A Dynasty Uncovered (behind-the-scenes footage); and a making-of featurette.

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