Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Banquet is a visually spectacular and emotionally charged journey about a fight for power, and the quest for revenge. As beautiful as she is young, and as limber as she is smart, Empress Wan (Zhang Ziyi) can launch a thousand ships with her charm and fight a hundred soldiers with her sword. But something is lacking in her life. Unfulfilled in her royal boudoir, she harbors forbidden desires for her stepson Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu), an introverted and melancholic young man four months her senior, who shies away from the palace to indulge in the ancient art of music and dance. After the sudden death of the Emperor and the immediate succession of his devious brother Li (Ge You), a troop of soldiers are dispatched to assassinate the young Prince Wu Luan. With danger never far away, the Prince must decide whether to fight for his place as ruler or to accept his fate under Li. But as the politics of the situation threaten to erupt into ferocious combat, the motivation of all involved must be called into question - and the Prince’s decision will have consequences that will reverberate throughout the entire Empire.
I had heard a lot of talk on the grape-vine regarding The Banquet around the time of its initial release in Hong Kong that it was a very stylish film that despite all its glitz and glamour, lacked the substance underneath to merit it being a essential piece of cinema. This was somewhat disappointing to hear as it decreased my desire to see the film, and Zhang Ziyi was in it, and anything with her should be essential viewing. Well, I finally got hold of the Metrodome UK release many years after all this talk and rumour spreading and I've been able to make up my own mind.
First off, the talk was most certainly right in the stylish regards. Every set, every scene, every camera shot or pan looks quite simply superb. This is by far the most impressive aspect of the film. In fact, if anything the film goes too far and becomes too stylish and borders the realms of pompous artistry. Nowhere did I feel this more so than the attack on the Music and Dance school in the first third of the film. Maybe it was how the characters were meant to be, after all they all were supposedly scholars of music and dance, but if I were being attacked by people intent on killing me, I wouldn't prance around, making deep artistic poses and not defend myself in anyway. With so much arty-ness going on, and it being at the forefront of the film, I feared the film would lose deeper substance and become not much more than a glamour piece that is only skin deep - in other words I feared the rumours and talk was going to be on the money.
Unfortunately, it was. The story was nothing more than a standard tale of murder and revenge, so required something special from the cast to elevate it above the other films in this genre, but rather than powerful, emotional performances, what you mostly got was arty melodrama. Daniel Wu is fairly wooden, with very little emotional range, Ge You is successful as the slimy, smarmy brother who you grow to dislike rather quickly, Zhang Ziyi doesn't have enough to do other than look conniving and being caught in the midst of all the drama, and the rest of the cast offer nothing much other than standard performances. There is little to make you feel for the characters involved or their situations. The only remaining saving grace for The Banquet is the action.
Alas, it was not up to a great standard either. With Yeun Wo-Ping at the helm, expectations were unsurprisingly high. The action delivers entertainment, but not anything that proved memorable. I wasn't left grinning like a Cheshire cat while watching fights like I so often have been. I was simply left mildly entertained, but with a hope for better later. Whether this was a constriction from the main director or the people he was choreographing, I don't know, but it simply wasn't up to the standards you'd like to see from Yuen Wo Ping.
With so much of an arty feel, The Banquet always had the potential to alienate some viewers and I think I was one of those people. It did not hit home on any level other than visuals, but those went too far. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. With no empathy or sympathy generated for the characters, I got not engage myself with the proceedings on any level and was left with nothing more than an impression that was only skin deep, which is such a shame as there was a lot of potential in the cast and crew.
Audio & Subtitles
As with all recent Metrodome releases, I have been very pleased with the audio and subtitle tracks. The 5.1 surround gets a decent workout with musical sounds and ambient effects spreading around the soundstage. Nothing spectacular to note, but a definite functional soundtrack.
The subtitles again had no evident spelling or grammar errors.
The film looked superb on my screen. Upscaling to 1080p the quality does depend on the equipment used, and with my now defunct HD-DVD player it looked great. Metrodome's recent films have had excellent transfers and this one is no exception. Crisp scenes, clear colours, sharp visuals, it is all there.
DVD & Extras
There are only 2 extras on the DVD - the film's trailer and a Making Of. The Making Of is quite interesting getting the cast and crew's perspective on the film, but not essential viewing.
The phrase "beauty is only skin deep" has never been more true about a film than The Banquet (and maybe Curse Of The Golden Flower too). Style over substance in abundance, un-exhilarating action and average performances result in a film that is instantly forgettable and not worthy a repeat viewing.