Written by Musgo Del Jefe
The 2000 release and subsequent Western world success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was supposed to pave the way for more big budget wu xia films for China and Hong Kong. Much like the same promise that Life Is Beautiful would make Roberto Benigni a star in the US or that Amelie would pave the way for more French films, this promise has only been hinted at. Director Zhang Yimou answered Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger with his own Chinese epic, Hero (2002). The success of that film led Zhang Yimou to film his more romantic take on the wu xia genre, House Of Flying Daggers (2004). That movie took place in 859 A.D., as the Tang Dynasty was starting its downfall. The latest in this line of epic Chinese storytelling is The Legend Of The Black Scorpion (2006), known internationally as The Banquet.
This 2-disc release from Dragon Dynasty comes with best pedigree of all these previous epics. The action is choreographed by Yuen Wo-ping who worked on Crouching Tiger as well as 2004's underrated Kung Fu Hustle (where he worked with LOTBS director, Feng Xiaogang). The star of the film is Ziyi Zhang is arguably the most famous Chinese actress in the world. It's hardly a wu xia epic without her – she's starred in Crouching Tiger, Hero, and Flying Daggers.
Legend Of The Black Scorpion is "inspired" by Shakespeare's Hamlet. In truth, Disney's The Lion King is "inspired" by Hamlet. This film isn't the direct adaptation of the play that Kenneth Branagh's four-hour epic is either, but LOTBS never strays too far from its source material. It's the choices that the writer and director make that deviate from the original story that will make or break a movie like this.
As it starts, we are quickly set into 907 A.D., towards the end of the Tang Dynasty. While the Prince is away studying acting, his father, the Emperor, has been killed (presumably by a Black Scorpion) and his Uncle has assumed the throne and plans to marry his father's wife, a woman that the Prince was previously in love with. Assassins have been sent to kill the Prince.
This first lengthy fight scene is also my favorite scene in the film. It has everything that I've come to love about these recent wu xia films. The setting is lush. All the actors are in plain white masks. We've yet to see the Prince, so the viewer and the assassins are not sure which one is the Prince. The fight here is full of ballet-like wire effects and slow-motion shots of blood spattering. This film is noticeably bloodier than the previously mentioned efforts. It works well here, the blood appears almost like Chinese characters against the clean white backgrounds. Not until the end of the scene is the Prince identified.
The theme of masks becomes the major theme lifted from the source material. It's an effective bridge of Western (Greek) and Eastern philosophies and it helps lead us through the major events of Act Two of the film, namely the coronation and the play-within-a-play. The masks in the films are mainly white and frozen in a neutral gaze. The first good look we get at the Prince is when he removes his mask when reuniting with the Empress. The warmth of his face shows the deep love he has for her. Later, the Prince explains to the Empress that without a mask, emotions are just on the surface of the face. With a mask, the deeper feelings below the surface can come out through the actions of the body.
The Third Act brings all the story lines back together for The Banquet. The Prince returns in a mask, almost like the ghost of his father in Hamlet to watch the dramatic events. Among the tragic events, we are reminded of a quote earlier in the film that a broken heart is more powerful than any poison. The best shot of the movie is here as the camera flies above Ziyi Zhang with her brilliantly red dress splayed in the shape of a broken heart.
The most interesting decision made in this production is also what moves it into such lofty company as Kurosawa's adaptation of King Lear, Ran. Hamlet can be read on many levels. It's a political play, a religious play, a philosophical play ("to be or not to be"), and more. By changing the character of Gertrude, the movie was able to condense and lose many of the subplots without the feeling that there was anything missing. Gertrude is Hamlet's mother in the play. By making the Empress a step-mother and a former love interest, she becomes the de facto focus of the movie. Ziyi Zhang's battle for power and the mask she wears regarding her love for the Prince became the main focus of the story.
The tragedy is not just that of the Prince. The female characters of the Empress and Qing (the Ophelia character) are at the center of this film. They are the ones making the important decisions that drive the plot. Their conflict is shown directly, unlike that of the Prince and the Emperor. There just aren't subversively feminist films like this being made in the U.S.
Like the best tragedies, the plot here seems simple on the surface, but below the masks, there's more complex ideas. If this is the type of offspring that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has spawned, I'm more than happy to wait two years between such beautiful, thought-provoking films.