Ballet-like martial arts choreography. Physics-defying wuxia elements. Picturesque locations. Slow motion horse riding through the water. Swaying bamboo forests. Even if you turn off the sound and ignore the story, the sets, scenery, costumes, and stunts make The Banquet every inch an epic-scaled visual feature.
The Banquet delivers a visual opulence that is elaborate and mesmerizing. It is sure to keep your eyes feasting in every scene. Indeed, it is another visually enticing theatrical offer in the visual level of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, andHouse of Flying Daggers. However, the build up of the story, the emotions and the characters never seem to soar in par with the beautifully staged visuals.
Aesthetically, the movie may have topnotch cinematography and production design; but the looks aren’t everything. It may be, technically appealing, but as a whole, the actual film falls into emptiness. With the plot getting more and more complicated as the story progresses, the time alloted for making an aesthetically pleasing drama doesn’t really find much ways to convey the needed emotions.
The Banquet is a Hamlet loosely adapted and set in ancient China. As an adaptation of the Shakespearean opus, it is set in an empire in chaos: the Period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (A.D. 907-60) of China, a time of royal instability in the north and warring states in the south. It exposes the vast land of China crumbling with rebellious regions splintering off into rival kingdoms.
The ornate theater drama and contrived grandeur look make the sets and art direction stately, stygian, power hungry, suppressed, rebellious, and melancholic. The kingdom shows everything perfectly arranged and everyone impeccably mannered.
Given its themes of desire and deception, The Banquet is a curious blend of competing and seemingly self-contradictory elements. It is magnificent and yet tightly restrained, both shockingly beautiful and shockingly brutal. It does deliver on its technical promises quite well. However, the movie deals more on the superficial aspect. The storyline is quite incoherent and most of the supporting characters are single-layered in not so impressive ways.
It may be an undoubtedly lavish spectacle, but it becomes a victim of having too much artificiality and design. The weak points in the storyline are further compromised by the treatment made for the confusing plotpoints. Empress Wan (Ziyi Zhang) may be carrying herself with the very bearing of a power-hungry, lovelorn empress; yet, she doesn’t project the necessary charisma of an evil queen. Zhang struggles to carry the film, but her best efforts can’t beat her too young seeming age to justify her character in this story. The role requires a more experienced, and a bit older actress to fill the screen. As the central role in this web of deceit, lust, and betrayal, the character of Empress Wan needs an actress with a bit more seasoning and a cinematic image of maturity for it to be more effective.Her performance is quite okay in a purely technical level, but her make-up and image don’t elevate her for the role. She comes off as too distant and undeveloped.
Daniel Wu as the royalty-turned-artist Wu Lan never registers that deeply, maybe because the film’s point of view is Zhang’s Empress Wan character. The reluctant Crown Prince of the empire who has withdrawn to the country and joined an acting troupe when his father married Wan is shattered with the murder of his Father Emperor by his ambitious uncle, the new emperor who assumed the throne Emperor Li (You Ge) who brings devious intelligence and some sorely needed wit to the proceedings. However, his character ultimately loses credibility, because it’s hard to believe that such a smart guy would attach himself to so many people who are angling to betray him. Wu gives a striking beat for his character. However, he lacks more dimension to his character that could have elevated the film further.
Xun Zhou captivates and conveys much emotions for her portrayal as Qing. She validates her role with her tenderness, pureness of heart, and deep love for the Prince. Angelic and affecting, she moves the audience in the right mood meant for her sympathetic character.
Jingwu Ma as the Minister makes a great supporting performance as well that complements his son’s character as portrayed by Xiaoming Huang.
The martial arts scenes are pretty good (choreographed by the renowned Yuan Wu Ping). The musical score and sound mixing tends to be a little off at times, though.
The Banquet comes at the end. Everyone is invited, and anyone who does not attend shall be killed. The Emperor, the Empress, the Crown Prince, the Minister and the General all have their own enemies that they would like to finish off during the important night And indeed, fatality becomes the end of the dinner. The ending depicts how deceit and deception can get punished. However, the movie’s ultimate twists and turns become stale and predictable. The final sequence gets the viewers quite lost along the way, especially the final details of the story.
What immediately strikes the viewer with The Banquet is its sheer scale. There has an obviously big budget allowing the production team to indulge themselves to create an impeccable piece of eye candy entertainment. The craftsmanship given to the sets, the armor, the costuming are all intricately detailed and meticulously designed (except for an overboard CGI of the palace tracking out which starts okay, but the panoramic parts look quite fake)
The Banquet is a lavish visual art work from Director Xiaogang Feng. It promises high-quality spectacle where you wouldn’t find a single frame that couldn’t make a great wallpaper.
The Banquet is essentially a chamber drama exposing the consequences of unbridled desire. On a technical level, it’s pretty well made. It’s a truly enjoyable piece of popcorn entertainment. The cinematography is breathtaking and the production design is undoubtedly impressive. However, it has an underdeveloped story and characterization. Zhang could have worked except for her too young looks that doesn’t complement the needed character. And it could have been better if the visual elements are employed in the service of a better story and characterization.