The year is 907 AD, the beginning of a turbulent time in Chinese history, referred to as "The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms." Evidently, this time has given rise to a lot of literature and movies, since "Curse of the Golden Flower," previously reviewed in this journal, is set at the same time, and has many of the same elements.
The movie opens with much the same set up as "Hamlet": the Emperor has been found dead, supposedly stung by a scorpion; his brother (Li, played by You Ge)has assumed the throne while the crown prince (Wu Luan, Daniel Wu) is away studying. What makes a critical difference is that Empress Wan (Ziyi) is not Wu Luan/Hamlet's mother, but in fact had been his intended spouse before being claimed by his father, the now-deceased Emperor. Wan/Gertrude still has feelings for Wu Luan, but agrees to become Li's Empress in part to protect Wu Luan from Li's assassination attempts but also because Li turns out to be a far better lover than her prior husband ever was--. It is this attention to her own interests that causes parallels to be drawn between her character and Lady Macbeth, plus, when she utimately chooses the Kingdom and Wu Luan over Li, it is she, and not Li, who touches off the carnage that climaxes the film. The body count is almost--but critically not quite--the same as Shakespeare, and the film ends with a startling twist that I shall not reveal.
The film is beautifully photographed and mounted, which seems to be the standard for Chinese epics that make it over here. "The Banquet" shows us a more rustic, less regimented, and ultimately less cruel Imperial palace than "Curse of the the Golden Flower," and the toxic family dynamics seem less shocking, perhaps because we are somewhat familiar with the setup.
Very fine acting by Ziyi in the starring role, well supported by Daniel Wu, You Ge, and the rest of the cast. Well worth seeing if nothing else for the interesting variation on the "Hamlet" theme.
A word of warning for those who don't like blood: the first extended sequence deals with Li's assassins, a unit of the Royal Guards, who massacre the members of Wu Luan's theatre school when they do not surrender him. There is LOTS of blood in this scene, artistically sprayed about in the Asian cinema fashion. While there are some bloody moments later in the film, this is by far the most intense scene and things are more decorous after that.