A loose adaptation of Hamlet, "The Night Banquet" is set in an empire in chaos. The Emperor, the Empress, the Crown Prince, the Minister and the General all have their own enemies they would like to finish off at a night banquet.
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During China's Tang dynasty the emperor has taken the princess of a neighboring province as wife. She has borne him two sons and raised his eldest. Now his control over his dominion is complete, including the royal family itself.
In 907 AD, the Tang Dynasty is in tatters; infighting snarls the imperial family. Crown Prince Wu Luan loves Little Wan, but his father takes her as his Empress. Wu Luan goes into exile, studying dance and music. His uncle murders his father, taking throne and Empress; uncle sends assassins to kill Wu Luan. The Crown Prince eludes death and comes to court. The Emperor arranges for Little Wan's coronation and dispatches Wu Luan to a distant land; he then calls for a midnight banquet on the 100th day of his rule. Poison, treachery, Wu Luan's return, and the love of the innocent Qing for Wu Luan set up the final entanglements. No Fortinbras or Horatio lay the dead to rest. Written by
Definitely worth catching on the BIG screen, this is an epic about court intrigue in the Five Dynasties period, which follows in part the Hamlet setup of a murderous uncle usurper (You Ge) and his duplicitous queen (Zhang Ziyi), with an angry yet distant, brooding prince (Daniel Wu). The details and setting are different enough so that the new story carries its own weight and is interesting, however. The acting is strong (some excellent), the martial arts scenes memorable, and the sets are fantastic! This is not a fully realistic historical drama, by the way. Director Xiaogang Feng has crafted a modern art piece here, highly stylized in some parts, and often gory, especially the martial arts scenes, so if you can't stomach people flying and leaping like phoenixes (while disemboweling each other), skip it. The highly artistic feel of the film is kept somewhat in check by the gritty, used, and sometimes decaying feel of the palace, and more so by the tight, sparse dialog, the drama and the tension of the story. (Although following in the footsteps of highly stylized films like some of Zhang Yimou's, the focus returns very firmly to the story in this one, thankfully.) Similarly, the stunning beauty of parts of the film is balanced by the unmitigated ambition of the characters and their other dark flaws. These left the story with no single, simplified protagonist to cheer for the very opposite of Hollywood formula. (The supporting role played by Xun Zhou might be an exception, but she's the very image of innocence and purity to a fatal flaw, and you pity her more than rooting for her.) The raw ambition, incestuous lust, jealous hate, betrayal and/or impotence darken nearly every character. While refreshingly different in this sense, it almost left me reaching for my goblet of hemlock. The Chinese title Ye Yan should have been translated as The Night Banquet rather than The Banquet (its English billing where I am), as the climax occurs at a midnight banquet unwisely set by the emperor at an inauspicious time, and it would have better reflected the darkness of the film.
Overall, I give it a big thumbs up.
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