Review of The Banquet (夜宴, Mainland China/Hong Kong, 2006), A Huayi Brothers Pictures (Mainland China) / Media Asia Films (Hong Kong) presentation of a Huayi Brothers Pictures production. (International sales: Huayi, Beijing/Media Asia, H.K.).
Director: Feng Xiaogang (“A World Without Thieves”)
Producers: Wang Zhongjun, John Chong
Music: Tan Dun (“Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Hero”)
Cinematographer: Zhang Li (“A World Without Thieves”)
Art Director: Tim Yip (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”)
Screenwriters: Sheng Heyu, Qiu Gangjian
Dance Choreographer: Wang Yuanyuan (“Raise the Red Lantern”)
Executive Producer: Yuen Wo-Ping (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”)
Editor: Liu Miaomiao;
Piano: Lang Lang;
Costume: Tim Yip;
Sound (Dolby Digital): Wang Danrong;
Visual Effects Supervisor: Phil Jones;
Running time: 129 MIN.
Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Ge You, Daniel Wu, Zhou Xun, Ma Jingwu, Huang Xiaoming. (Mandarin dialogue)
Release in China: Sept 15, 2006; Korea: Sept 21, 2006.
Shaoyi’s Rating: B+ (Very Good)
I’ve written somewhere else in Chinese, arguing that The Banquet, Feng Xiaogang’s Hamlet-inspired period drama, is very close to what Japanese director Shunji Iwai called the “extreme film”. This can be substantiated through both style and content. Stylistically, the film’s use of color prioritizes black, white, and red, the three colors that present great contrast to each other and give the film a dark and sinister look that perfectly matches the theme of the film, which is about desire, power, and revenge. In terms of content, Feng seems to have successfully transformed himself from a light-comedy director to a filmmaker who dares to defy the Confucian tradition of the doctrine of the mean: seldom do we see in Confucian literary tradition that people would risk their lives for pure love, lust, and hatred. I have no idea whether director Feng is aware of this fact, but it seems to me that he is reviving an ancient tradition so vividly depicted in the literature of the Warring States period, when Confucian tradition had not established its roots in Chinese mind. More specifically, The Banquet could be viewed as a film about China’s forgotten myth of death. The film is obsessed with the “beauty” of death: Empress Wan, Emperor Li, Prince Wu Luan, and Qing Nu all seem to willingly embrace their ultimate destiny in his or her own way. We encounter this death instinct more often in works written before the Han dynasty: suicide, sacrifice, and willingness to take one’s life for simple honor and dignity. It is in this sense that I see The Banquet more of a Chinese story than another version of Shakespeare’s “To Be or Not To Be”. It revives the ancient “wind” of China, when Chinese emotion hadn’t been tainted by Confucian doctrine.
Of course one might say that I over-interpret the film, but this is what most critics do. I saw the film in Hongzhou prior to its nationwide release. We were bused to the city from Shanghai by the Huayi Brothers and fed with a real banquet before watching the film. To be frank, I felt a little uneasy with this practice because the whole activity was organized by the Huayi Brothers, the very company that made the film, and we were asked to write film reviews afterwards. But after finishing the film, I felt relived, because I did like the film. There are several reasons as to why I give high marks to the film. First of all, I support any effort to make the Chinese film industry strong and competitive on international stage. While I love art films, I am fully aware a nation’s cinema cannot sustain itself by only producing art films. A healthy cinema must consist of two wings: big budget commercial film and small budget art film. On international stage, it is largely through the effort by Feng Xiaogang, Zhang Yimou, and Chen Kaige in recent years that Chinese cinema has reached an audience beyond the university campus. This is what Hollywood has achieved long time ago with its dominance over the international film market. Second, although I felt the film sometimes needs to be trimmed, because the first half lacks focus and emotional intensity, I was overwhelmed by the film’s finale, where the emperor sets a lavish banquet and invites all the ministers and marshals to attend. This is where the film reaches its climax, a climax that successfully brings otherwise fragmentary pieces together and finally succeeds in involving the audience on both intellectual and emotional levels.
The film’s theme song, composed by Tan Dun and sung by Zhang Liangying, one of the famed “super girls”, also succeeds in elevating The Banquet to a higher level. If the film can be called a tragedy, it owes a great deal to Tan’s and Zhang’s collective effort in making this song an instant classic. Audiences should remain seated before the song wraps up the film. It will pay off.