Famed for his comedy films, Feng Xiaogang's latest movie The Banquet is a big budget affair, a Chinese Hamlet, and the popular director has high hopes it will take him to the very top.
Fans are eagerly anticipating the release of veteran Chinese director Feng Xiaogang's epic new drama, The Banquet, to see how the "master of humor" handles an art film.
In recent years, Feng's sweet and blackly-humorous productions (Cell Phone, Big Shot's Funeral, A Sigh) have been among the most popular domestic pictures.
"I want to break the stereotype many people have of me that I am only a successful director of comedies," says director Feng, vice president of the jury panel at the ongoing Shanghai International Film Festival. "A good director should have the passion and courage to touch wider genres."
Feng didn't conceal the ambitions he has for the romantic and even tragic The Banquet.
Currently promotion is the name of the game for this highly-anticipated movie set for nationwide release in September. Last month, the film crew spent about 4 million yuan (US$500,000) on promoting The Banquet at the Cannes Film Festival.
Director Feng has been busy organizing special costumes and props for promotional exhibitions around Asia.
In Shanghai, the exhibition kicked off last Sunday in the lobby of the Shanghai Film Art Center, featuring 10 of the characters' luxurious costumes and delicately designed accessories such as swords and imperial jade seals.
"My designing this time has a strong influence from both Western oil painting and traditional Chinese watercolors," says Tim Yip, the movie's art designer and an Oscar-winning artist for his work on Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The costumes with exaggerated patterns and colors, also boast elegantly embroidered images of phoenix, flowers and landscapes. Yip adds that he was largely inspired by the evolving, emotional route of the heroine (played by Zhang Ziyi).
"For the audience, color is a simple but effective approach to mirror the personalities of the different roles," director Feng says. "Yip's efforts add a strong romantic and artistic flavor to the film."
The blockbuster with a budget of 150 million yuan stars Zhang Ziyi, Ge You, Zhou Xun, Huang Xiaoming and Daniel Wu.
It centers on the royal power struggle in ancient China and is positioned as the Chinese version of Hamlet by critics.
"If Hamlet is about a prince who must make a choice involving life and death, The Banquet is about how each character moves step-by-step towards the abyss," director Feng notes. "All are motivated by desire. They do not intend evil, but turn to it out of self-preservation and ever-growing ambition."
With a handful of popular comedies based on contemporary life and native tastes, such as Cell Phone and Part A Part B, director Feng has been one of China's most beloved and popular movie names. Enjoying these light-hearted and warm pictures every year has been a custom of many Chinese movie buffs.
"But The Banquet is such a distinctive shift from Feng's former comedic-style," says Zhang Jian, a fan of director Feng's films.
"Though his peers, director Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, have won international acclaim with big-budget martial arts films, I don't think it is a wise choice for him."
A great many film fans have still not recovered from their disappointment at Chen Kaige's The Promise. What worries them is whether The Banquet will become another case like The Promise - big budget, strong promotion but weak story line. Director Feng admits that many Chinese directors are not adept at telling stories.
"They pay excessive attention to some other things such as the special effects and the fame of the actors, but a clear and attractive story line is an important element for a good movie," he says.
The movie also plans to compete in next year's Academy Awards for Best Foreign Picture.
"Chinese filmmakers should face up to the competition from Hollywood blockbusters," Feng notes. "The best way is not seeking protection from the government, but by developing our own film industry and presenting wonderful commercial productions."
As Oscar-winning director Ang Lee said during the festival's forum this week: "There are no big worries about the impact and competition from Hollywood. Chinese cinema is also having its own strong interactive influence on Hollywood."
The Banquet costumes and props exhibition
Date: June 22
Venue: Shanghai Film Art Center, 160 Xinhua Road
Date: June 23-27
Venue: Stellar Cinema City, 8/F, 168 Lujiazui Road W., Pudong
(Shanghai Daily June 22, 2006)