An altogether more persuasive and involving attempt to meld classical tragedy and wire-fu action than Zhang Yimou’s tiresome and overblown Curse of the Golden Flower, Xiaogang Feng’s The Banquet is a recognisable adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with some notable alterations. Most notably, as I recall, there was never this much high-flying, high-kicking action in Shakespeare, akin, to reverse the cultural traffic, to sticking multiple gunslinger duels into Dream of the Red Chamber. Feng and screenwriters Gangjian Qiu and Heyu Sheng also toy with the story to make Gertrude into Zhang Ziyi’s Empress Wan, not the mother of the Hamlet character but his former amour and then his stepmother, roped into marriage by his father the Emperor, and then seduced by usurping uncle Li (You Ge). Wan’s a sensual egotist whose only apparent positive trait is her still ardent attachment to the melancholy Prince, Wu Luan (Daniel Wu). Li, after snatching the imperial throne and Wan, whom he desperately wants to love and be loved by, tries and fails to have Wu Luan assassinated, along with the troupe of masked actors he’s been working with for three years.
But Wu survives, and makes it back to the palace to confront Wan and smoke out Li with his version of “The Mousetrap”. The Ophelia figure is Qing Nu (Xun Zhou), daughter to one of Li’s ministers, Taichang Yin (Jingwu Ma) and brother to his son, General Sun Yin (Xiaoming Huang). She receives a bitter taste of Wan’s wrath when she threatens her efforts to retain Wu’s affections, but refuses to back away, finally dying from a goblet full of poison intended by Wan for her husband at a celebratory banquet. The following massacre, appropriately, consumes all of them, except for Wan, who stands alone in a desolate triumph, but there’s still a nasty surprise waiting for her.
Like many recent Chinese mega-productions, The Banquet throws its lustrous visuals and scattershot ideas at the screen without much care for setting up either the plot, characters, or firm logic of narrative – the crucial relationship of Wu and Qing is terribly established – and Feng doesn’t quite work out how to effectively fuse the intimacy of high drama and the absurdities of modern wu xia action flicks. But nor does he retreat into the empty, jagged formalism Chen Kaige’s been specialising in the past decade, and he tackles the project with such voluble intensity it doesn’t matter too much in the end, for he digs into the aching hearts of all the major characters, and renders them compelling by the time the inevitable bloodbath rolls around. Zhang (equipped, amusingly, with an occasional body double to flesh out her character’s saucy charms) delights in playing an evil minx, and Zhou is lovely as the endangered Qing. But it's Ge who stands out with a marvellously measured turn as the cunning, vicious, but secretly romantic Claudius stand-in.