The Banquet

Reviewed by: sukting

October 17, 2010

Rating: two-point-five

How long
2 hours 10 minutes

The Banquet (夜宴) was directed by Feng Xiaogang, the director that the late Mui Yim Fong wished to work with. This movie is a loose adaption of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. It is set in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, in 10th-century China.

Story/ Introduction on characters

Crown Prince Wu Luan (Ng Yin Jou) is in love with a court official’s daughter, Wan Er (Zhang Zi Yi). Both practice Yue Nu sword together under the Emperor’s guide and Wu Luan learns faster than her. However, the Emperor marries her and Wu Luan is devastated by it. He goes to the South to focus his attention on music and dance. The Emperor was then murdered by his brother (Ge You), who becomes Emperor Li.

He has molested Empress Wan in the past and then recrowned as Empress – to be his wife. Emperor Li sends assassins to get rid of Wu Luan, who is the thorn in his eye. Wu Luan’s henchmen are all killed in the process – all of them wear white with masks. It is a bloody sight to see corpses everywhere while Wu Luan is forced to hide under water, helplessly. He then rushes back to the palace. Emperor Li can’t help touching Empress Wan’s shoulders all the time.

To keep him alive, Empress Wan agrees to submit to Emperor Li. This angers Wu Luan although she throws herself at him. Both have not changed their feelings towards each other. Empress Wan asks why he hasn’t shared his thoughts with Qing Nu. She softens when he calls her Wan Er. He replies that she can never understand a lonely person. He addresses Empress Wan as Mother as she is four yours older than him.

Both spar together and she takes out Yue Nu sword from his bamboo. She also gets to see a song composed by him. It is “Yue Ren” song. He has written it out of loneliness. Empress Wan gets very disturbed. She has wanted him to be aggressive to become a ruler in future and not a man to get involved in the arts. Unknown to both, Emperor Li is outside and is about to draw his sword. Upon hearing this, he is satisfied and walks away.

Wu Luan is not convinced that his father is killed by a scorpion when he is asleep. Wu Luan’s fiancée is Qing Nu (Zhou Xun), the daughter of a palace official, the Grand Marshall (Ma Jing Wu). He is a close ally of the former emperor. To him, the engagement is a blessing in the past but is now a burden. The Grand Marshall's power is weakened when his son, Jian (Huang Xiao Ming) is sent to a distant province to become governor. Jian is very protective of Qing Nu and will never allow any harm to come to her.

Empress Wan is to have a new coronation ceremony. Someone offers a leopard carving to Emperor Li. A court official opposes to this by addressing her as the Empress Dowager. However, she still submits to Emperor Li by kneeling to him. She even adds that the carving should switch to a dragon. Thus, this poor man gets killed by displaying his loyalty to the late emperor foolishly. Emperor Li is pleased and announces that the new design should include a dragon with a phoenix.

Wu Luan approaches a master of poison. He is the one who comes up with the scorpion poison in powder form to pass to Emperor Li. Empress Wan has a talk with Qing Nu. She has taken the red cloth from her for the ceremony. How does Qing Nu communicate with Wu Luan since he never sends her letters? She replies that they meet through dreams. Empress Wan nearly bursts but controls herself so she gets Qing Nu to sew the clothes for her.

Emperor Li and Empress Wan meet Wu Luan. Emperor Li’s men spar with Wu Luan with wooden swords. However, one is told by Emperor Li to kill Wu Luan with a real sword hidden at the back of a pillar. He is totally surrounded and is about to die when Empress Wan seizes the sword to stop on time. Emperor Li then uses the sword to kill his man to silent him.

Empress Wan washes Wu Luan’s hair and wonders why he is masked when performing. He replies that it is the highest stage to hide all emotions. She then asks how he feels about her feelings now. He answers that she looks eager but also remorseful towards his father. Well, that is a wrong guess. She is furious with him for being a weakling. The highest stage is to conceal all feelings right on the face and not through the mask.

At the ceremony, Wu Luan stages a masked mime play that exposes his uncle as his father's murderer. Emperor Li is offended and nearly wants his life on the spot. He then has a better plan. He will not kill Wu Luan now and neither does he want Empress Wan to get intimate with him. Thus, he decides the prince will be exchanged as a hostage for the prince of the Khitans.

Empress Wan tries to talk him out of it as the neighbour prince is an imposter. Emperor Li claims that he must keep his word so Empress Wan bids her last goodbye to him. A naive Qing Nu comes and wants to accompany Wu Luan. (She is a scatterbrain indeed.) This incurs Empress Wan’s wrath and Qing Nu is given 40 strokes as punishment. The Grand Marshall can only watch this helplessly.

He nurses her wounds at home and wants her to bear with it. Qing Nu has no intention to conceal her love for Wu Luan. Empress Wan comes at this time to touch all her wounds on her back in purpose. Qing Nu bites her teeth even though she is in pain. The Grand Marshall gasps in horror when she starts to make wrong comments again. Empress Wan is jealous of her getting so much love from the others. Empress Wan gets so mad that she imprisons her in her chambers.

The emperor's men reach the snowy border, wanting to kill Wu Luan by the emperor’s command. Jian follows Empress Wan's instructions and saves Wu Luan. He has to do it as Qing Nu is now in her hands. He gets agitated when Wu Luan wants to return and retorts that he isn’t afraid of death. He knows that but this reckless act can also implicate others. (What I can say that Qing Nu also brings this upon herself too.) Jian brings the blooded mask to inform Emperor Li that he arrives too late to try to save Wu Luan and the emperor’s men.

Empress Wan has her own plans – to poison the emperor. She approaches the master. The master reveals that Wu Luan doesn’t take it the last time as he isn’t wicked enough. The most deadly poison is the heart. True for Empress Wan. She gives the master the poppy flower poison to kill himself although the amount is very little. She wants the Grand Marshall and Jian to help her to become the Empress Regnant when Emperor Li is killed. The old man decides that Jian should take the position if anything goes wrong.

Emperor Li calls for a grand banquet. Even though the Lord Chamberlain has warned him that the date isn’t auspicious, he dismisses it. Empress Wan has the poison in her last finger, waiting for her chance. She pours wine into a cup for Emperor Li. Emperor Li is about to drink it when Qing Nu appears. She has planned another play “Yue Ren” song for the occasion. This is in tribute to Wu Luan, she wears his mask.

Her family members and Empress Wan tear their hair in exasperation. The emperor then gives the cup to Qing Nu out of respect and showing pity for her. Although she never drinks wine, she drinks it out of respect. The Grand Marshall stops Jian from preventing Qing Nu from drinking. (Sigh – what a stupid decision. How can this old man be deprived of compassion and Qing Nu is surely a nutcase!)

After the performance, Qing Nu vomits blood and falls to the ground. A man holds her and he is Wu Luan. He is among the troupe. In tears, he tells her that he is not lonely anymore. She smiles and dies in peace as she has felt his presence among the people earlier. Wu Luan wants the men to step aside as he doesn’t want to harm the innocent. They obey him as they know that they are not his match. Upon seeing Qing Nu dead, Emperor Li realises in horror that Empress Wan wants to kill him. Why does she want to kill him since he thinks that he has warmed her heart of ice?

She replies that his fire is too ferocious and her heart is burned in the process. Seeing that he loses all support, Emperor Li commits suicide by drinking the rest of the poisoned wine. How can he not drink it since she offers it to him? He dies after landing on her lap. (I am not easily bought over as he is so ambitious and is very questionable to give in so easily. His love for her is not deep enough to die for her. Like what they said, Empress Wan is very easily replaced anytime.)

Empress Wan addresses Wu Luan as Emperor and wants him to kill her. He hates this address and doesn’t want to do it. Jian grieves for Qing Nu as he holds her in his arms and attempts to kill her to avenge his sister. His poisoned blade is stopped by Wu Luan and Empress Wan stabs Jian to death. Wu Luan dies in her arms. Empress Wan is then proclaimed Empress Regnant by the Lord Chamberlain.

Empress Wan holds the bright red cloth and tells of why she likes this colour. Red is the flame of desire that she has all her life. Now it is satisfied by taking the throne. She is suddenly pierced to death by a blade. This weapon is Yue Nu sword that Wu Luan uses. Before she dies, she turns around and looks at her killer with a horrified expression.

The blade is dropped into a seaweed koi pot, and the blood gets into the water. Sorry to disappoint all but the movie ends here without telling who the killer is!

Interesting facts
The Banquet had its international premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it received the Future Film Festival Digital Award. It also received the People's Choice Award at the 4th World Film Festival of Bangkok, where it was screened two weeks before its wide release in Thailand.

The Banquet was chosen as Hong Kong's entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, while China's entry was Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower. Too bad none of them won. Sometimes, I feel that it was a competition between the two directors for shooting period movies at the same time. Like Zhang, Feng was also obsessed with different colours. Wan Er likes red, Emperor Li dons black, Wu Luan wears white while Qing Nu adores green to depict their personalities.

The Banquet won 2 awards out of 5 nominations at the 43rd Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan. It won for both Best Art Direction and Best Make up and Costume Design. The 3 other nominations were Best Cinematography (Li Zhang), Best Original Score (Dun Tan), and Best Song ( Zhang Liang Ying).

Who kills Empress Wan?
Anyone can be the culprit since Feng Xiao Gang has not revealed anything. Many are annoyed (including me) with the ending. It tries to be like ‘The Flying Fox of Snowy Mountain’ – no one knows if Hu Fei will kill Miao Ren Feng in the end. However, this one is worse as everyone is a suspect!

Some claimed The Grand Marshall has sneaked back. Some deduced it is the late emperor’s ghost since his armour can bleed but others dismiss it as this ghost could have prevented other tragedies since it is so powerful. Some said it is Wu Luan’s ghost as he can detect that she is too power hungry.

Some guessed Emperor Li fakes his death to return as they do not see him vomiting blood like Qing Nu. The rest found the maid, Ling, to be the one since she is the only person in the room. Director Feng’s answer to all questions was witty – he was the one to kill her!

They are by Teng Ge Er, Zhou Xun and Zhang Liang Ying. They are quite nice to listen to. 《越人歌》by Zhou Xun is one of the most touching songs that I have heard. Other music pieces are by Tan Dun but I feel that he runs out of originality as most sound almost the same.

I must say that I am quite disappointed by the movie. No doubt the cast is famous. That doesn’t imply that the story and characters are suitable for them. Ge You is suitable for commoner roles but a definite no for emperor roles. He lacks the ruthless air – no matter which angle I look, he doesn’t fit into the loyalty background.

Zhang Zi Yi shows the strong nature well – almost at par with Gong Li. She has the most scenes and is able to capture everyone’s attention. Coincidentally, Gong Li also plays a queen in Curse of the Golden Flower. No doubt she brings out Empress Wan’s cunning character, directors should concentrate more on her acting instead of getting her to reveal her skin all the time.

Huang Xiao Ming is a surprise as Jian. The way he saves the prince shows how gallant a general should be. He can be tough and can be soft when coming to his family members. The pain of losing a beloved sibling is so obvious in his eyes – but some may read that he is treating her as a lover. As for Yin Jou, he is a misfit to be the frowning and lonely prince trapped by love and conflicts. The inner feelings are not projected enough.

It is not Zhou Xun’s fault to make love-one-sided-but-totally-oblivious Qing Nu to be so gullible (I will not use the word innocent here as claimed by her family). Blame the director for this. Even though she is well sheltered by her family, she should not be so ignorant and silly. She becomes a rag doll who only likes to sew and dream. Her only outstanding scene is Qing Nu’s death scene.

Costumes wise, they suit the banquet description well for the eyes as the sets are spetacular – not as over the top to see gold colours everywhere in Curse of the Golden Flower. But it is weird to see the helmets, armour and palace which belong to Shakesphere/Lord of the rings/Harry Potter era. As for the fighting scenes, don’t everyone find a striking resemblance to ‘House of Flying Daggers’, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and ‘Hero’? Can it be due to Tan Dun’s music which sounds almost the same?

Probably the ending is just to show that a dynasty will end no matter how powerful the ruler is. This is similar to history as the loyal court does not have capable officials to see it through. There are too many killings – the assassins kill themselves when they fail in their mission to kill Wu Luan. The Lord Chamberlain promises not to kill their clans but if I were them, I will kill The Lord Chamberlain and his men instead since both camps have almost the equal number of people. What a joke!

Luckily, I watch this 2 long hour slow film on television and not in the cinema. It is so ridiculous at times to try to trick away with awkward Chinese culture and cheesy, terrible conversations. Almost all emotions by the leads are deadpan. Non-Chinese are not that easily convinced these days as they have watched many films by now. What’s more the Chinese? We will expect even more.

For those familiar with the classic : Crown Prince Wu Luan is Hamlet, Wan Er is Gertrude, Emperor Li is Claudius, Qing Nu is Ophelia, Marshal Yin is Polonius and Yin Jian is Laertes.

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