Retelling of classic tales has been a fodder for movie scripts for years. Take something that has worked for ages, spin it just so and you got a movie that might be gold. They have been doing this with Romeo & Juliet for years. The results can be great or sometimes they are one step of having the creator roll around in his grave with pain and anguish. Take Hamlet for example, the classic Shakespearian tale about a prince who takes revenge on his uncle Claudius who has murdered his father the King and taken the throne and the king’s wife too. It has treachery, corruption and a little good ole fashioned incest to wet the palette. Now take that piece of journalistic tragedy and set it after the fall of the Tang Dynasty in China. Insert popular Asian actors like Ziyi Zhang & Daniel Wu and you might just have something.
Emperor Li (played by You Ge) has taken over the throne from his brother by murdering him. In the process, he has also taken the brother’s wife Empress Wan (played by Ziyi Zhang) as his own for the good of the kingdom (and cause she’s hot). An attack is also staged on the Prince, Wu Lan (played by Daniel Wu) who has devoted his life to the arts and is found at a nearby village of actors. After an elaborate fighting scene, he escapes with his life and makes his way to the castle to confront his step mother, the Empress (which we find out they shared romantic feelings toward each other) and expose his father’s murderer, the Emperor.
The Empress, back at the castle, is planning to have a giant coronation ceremony. She also decides to have Wu Lan perform a sword fighting exhibition as entertainment for the reception. Instead Wu Lan (because of his skill in the arts) decides to put on a play that pantomimes the Emperor as his father’s murderer. Emperor Li after the masked mime play decides to creatively exile Prince Wu (in such a way not to alienate the step-mother) and make sure he is never heard from again. This sets off a chain of events that lead to an elaborate banquet (incidentally the original translated name for the film in China) where everything is put on display and the climax is reached for our royal family.
The film can be easily conceived as a masterpiece, for most Far East audiences. The film is gorgeous with extremely elaborate sets and the actors & actresses put on tremendous performances. The sets you see are real and the extras are legit, not computer graphics (though there is lots of Wire-Fu going on). It is easy to see how this movie broke box office records in China. The film requires you to follow the plot very closely paying attention to every step of dialog that comes across the screen (whether it is in subtitles or speech). This is not at all a bad thing, except when it comes to traditional Western audiences. Most audiences will be expecting Crouching Tiger or Memoirs of a Geisha and get something else in return.
There are some great fight scenes but it isn’t with the main Hamlet-like character, Prince Wu Lan. In fact, he escapes death by luck for the most part. Daniel Wu is great at projecting his internal speech & emotions, but comes off as a weak main character. The film’s real main character is in fact Empress Wan. Ziyi Zhang puts on a stunning performance by playing the Empress as ever blood-thirsty and cutthroat as can be. Equally impressive is female supporting actress, Zhou Xun who plays Qing Nu, the love interest for the Prince character. Despite her small role, she gives it her all and really shines as the balance to the Empress and fighting in her own way for the man she loves.
My real problem besides how the lead male character is portrayed is the lost potential of the ending. Obviously, I’m not going to spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it, but it very richly deserves the WTF line. Initially it follows the plot line of Hamlet with creative license but the final scene leaves with a totally open ended question (along the concept of “Who Shot JR?”). If you end up listening to the commentary (which I very much recommend), you’ll find out the original conceived murderer. But the fact that they just left that to inquiring minds is puzzling at best. It’s a nice idea but more often than not, it just confuses the heck out of most audiences.
This film is shot in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. As mentioned before, the sets look impressive. The film was worth its budget (~$100 million dollars). Tim Yip who did art direction and production design should be very proud of this film. The print is beautiful and Dragon Dynasty did a great job of bringing this accurately to their dvd 2-disc set.
The movie gives us the audio options of Mandarin DTS (5.1 DD also included) and English 5.1 dub. Perusing through the original DTS, the sound is very rich and surrounds are nicely used. Dialog is crisp but sometimes falls a little flat and sounds muted. I could be wrong about that since I don’t speak Mandarin (obviously I’m reading subtitles) but from what I could tell the dialog wasn’t always clear. Subtitles are provided for English, English SDH and Spanish.
- Automatic Trailers: Robin B Hood (this movie makes Look Who’s Talking look Oscarworthy), The City of Violence & Dog Bite Dog.
- Audio Commentary by Hong Kong Expert Bey Logan: Another strong commentary from the Dragon Dynasty guru, Bey Logan. In fact, this is the probably the best one I’ve heard from him yet. He fully compares the movie to Hamlet where it takes obvious influence from but doesn’t stop there. He also compares certain scenes to Prince of Himalayans (a competing movie that was released around the same time as this one) and even Life of Brian. Bey also goes into discussion about who was originally thought to be behind the Whodunit. If you had any problem understanding the movie at all, this is required listening and will clear everything up.
- Master of Ceremonies: An Exclusive Interview with Director Feng Xiaogang 20:15: The director of the film, Feng goes over how much he likes costume drama and how this tragedy was caused by desire. He also goes into the mystery of the ending but doesn’t really give anything away. Solid background representation here.
- Warrior Prince: An Exclusive Interview with Leading Man Daniel Wu 23:28: Small note but this is the only pure English feature on the 2nd disc. The core of Daniel’s interview is his talk about he lived the role. The character of Wu Lan is very private, very lonely and Daniel spent a lot of his personal life during this film very isolated and withdrawn from everybody. At the curtail of the interview, he also spoke about the two leading women of the film and remain closed lipped about the ending.
- The Making of the Legend of the Black Scorpion 15:02: Your usual behind the scenes piece with direction on the beautiful sets and how they were planned out and made. One hundred million buys a lot of a bamboo, that’s for sure.
- A Dynasty Uncovered: Behind the Scenes on Legend of the Black Scorpion 43:24: Didn’t we just do this? More Behind the Scenes information, but mostly of a redundant nature. They spend some time on the original Banquet name and its creative roots. Daniel Wu shows up again here as does all cast members and discusses how much he has in common with Zhou Xun. Oooo, possibly a little puppy love between two of the core actors? How touching. This feature and the prior one should have been combined here and made into something about 40 minutes long to avoid redundancy.
- Trailer Gallery: Two of the original theatrical trailers, one teaser and even a decent length promo from Cannes.
Another winner for the Dragon Dynasty folks here. Well for the most part. Legend of the Black Scorpion (or the Banquet) is a great film but it is not perfect. Asian audiences will eat this up and herald it as one of the best films of the decade. Western audiences on the other hand will get lost (some of it is our own fault) in the way some of the dialog plays out. The ending will also frustrate a few as some are looking for closure. Dragon Dynasty produces a wonderful 2-disc collection as always with fantastic video, solid audio and a decent list of extras including one of the best commentaries in recent memory. Recommended for solid acting and tremendous production, but you might have to watch it twice to understand it all.