Though it has premiered in four other Chinese cities and Venice, the so-called official world premiere of The Banquet was launched in Beijing on Saturday with stars lining up on the red carpet.
Amid the camera flashes and cheers of the crowds, the movie's cast and crew stepped up to the front gate of the Grand Hyatt Beijing, where a celebration ceremony was held in the evening. In attendance were famed Chinese director Feng Xiaogang and actor Ge You, both of whom will also dedicate their voices to Sony Pictures' cartoon Open Season (Chinese version), which is to be shown at the end of this month in China. Leading lady Zhang Ziyi was accompanied up the red carpet by fellow cast-members Zhou Xun, America-born Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu, actors Huang Xiaoming and Ma Jingwu. Hong Kong screenwriting legend Kang Chien Chiu, playwright Sheng Heyu, Academy Award-winning composer Tan Dun, action director Yuen Wo-ping and set designer Tim Yip attended the publicity with Huayi Brothers Pictures' top executives.
Freshly returned from the 63rd Venice Film Festival where a Chinese film Still Life (Sanxia Haoren) was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Film, The Banquet did not receive acclaim from Western critics though the creators initially chose a movie script aimed at the global market. For instance, Variety's Derek Elley has said nobody had standout performance in the "visually opulent but stately and stygian drama."
Much criticism has also emerged in China after several smaller showings in the cities of Guangzhou, Xi'an, Hangzhou and Shenyang. Interestingly enough, in recent years, Chinese audiences and critics have followed the unofficial "routine" of trashing any big-budget blockbusters by Chinese directors aiming to rival their Hollywood fellows. Even Hero, directed by Zhang Yimou whose Curse of the Yellow Flowers is due out this year, received a great amount of negative publicity in China while being highly praised in the rest of the world and topping the US' movie chart. Chen Kaige's The Promise has also provoked much controversy, even public anger from audiences, especially netizens.
The Banquet, reportedly costing about 150 million yuan (US$18.9 million) to make, is expected to be longtime comedy director Feng Xiaogang's directing transformation. The movie tells a tragedy happening in a kingdom during the Period of Five Dynasties and Ten States (907-979) in ancient China.
The storyline was inspired by Shakespeare's Hamlet, which has been admitted by the director from the very beginning, but has several adaptations: Empress Wan (Zhang Ziyi), in love with Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) since their very young age, is crowned as the Empress and becomes her beloved's step-mother by marrying his father, who was later murdered by Emperor Li (Ge You), his power-hungry brother who crowned Wan as the Empress once again. Meanwhile, the prince Wu Luan is locked in a power-struggle with Emperor Li, and loved by Qing Nu (Zhou Xun), an innocent minister's daughter. In the end, all die for love, struggle, revenge and desire.
Feng and his crew expressed their satisfaction over the movie at a press conference held Saturday afternoon. Angered with those critics wanting to undermine his movie before its wide release, Feng said he would love to hear what audiences, rather than critics, say, and remained convinced that The Banquet would be loved.
He also punched back when asked about foreign criticism who said the movie lacked Chinese characteristics. "I think it was their biased conspiracy. They want to look down upon us from their hegemony culture angle. When you have done a good job as they do, they are not pleased. They will say it lacks so-called 'Chinese characteristics' and 'hope' you go back to do those old colorful stuff. They also feel that The Banquet is almost the same as the House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As a matter of fact, I feel the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are almost the same, too. But they are definitely different. This only indicates that we have known very little about each other."
The movie was shown twice on Saturday, a matinée for general media, the other evening showing for selected media and guests. China.org.cn, exclusively invited, was treated to the morning viewing. With its depressive but magnificent music, short but eye-catching action scenes and darkly beautiful set and costume designs, The Banquet is far from a flop. The plots are well organized, though a little sluggish. The cast works well, especially Zhang Ziyi, at her best when demonstrating her character's physical and mental crises.
For Chinese audiences, the biggest problem may be the movie's Chinese dialogue, much of it drawn from literary language. The amusement inherent to hearing characters speak in such a way detracts from the tragic atmosphere the film tries to build. Feng argued there should have been nothing to laugh at, blaming it on journalists and unprofessional critics themselves who had not fully understood the movie and the script. But some news outlets previously guessed that one of the causes is Chinese audience's long-standing impressions of comedian Ge You and Feng's former comedies. No one laughed at the Venice premiere since most of the audience did not know who Feng was.
At the evening's showing, most audience members gave warmer responses than critics did. When Feng asked if the movie was good as credits rolled, people cheered "good!" immediately. But fate will determine if Feng will smile after The Banquet's nationwide release on September 14. The movie is also ready to compete for next year's Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
(China.org.cn by staff reporter Zhang Rui, September 11, 2006)