Director: Feng Xiaogang (2006)
Hamlet in hanyu – that about sums up The Banquet, China's most anticipated film of the year. Of course there are differences: Denmark is traded for a dynasty; wushu replaces fencing; and Zhang Ziyi in the Gertrude role has more than a maternal interest in this Hamlet, played by Hong Kong heartthrob Daniel Wu.
But both stories hinge on intrigue – and end in bloodshed. The Banquet follows Empress Wan (Zhang) after she marries Li (Ge You), the power-hungry brother of her recently murdered husband, the emperor. Meanwhile, with Li wanting him out of the way, the Crown Prince Wu Luan (Wu), must watch his back. But he's more likely to be watching the shapely figures of his sword-swinging stepmom and innocent Qing Nu (Zhou Xun), both of them smitten with the dark prince. Who will love whom? And who will live? It's all to be determined at a – you guessed it – banquet.
For Feng Xiaogang, China's third biggest director, the success of The Banquet is something of a test. The psychological drama is a big departure from the black comedies that made Feng's name. It's also a recast of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon formula of "wuxia pian'r plus Zhang Ziyi equals box office hit."
Working his way up from TV, he has spent most of his 15 years as a director making black comedies – most of them wildly popular. While China's two biggest directors, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, shot artier films, Feng made audience favorites. His trademarks are loopy characters, pun-laced scripts and an eye for satire.
"He wasn't just making films for fun or laughs, though he managed to do that very well," says professor of Chinese film at the University of Washington Yomi Braester. "He (was making) some pretty smart social commentary."
Compared even to his recent dramas – A World without Thieves and Cellphone – The Banquet is his most serious film yet – and most expensive, at US$20 million. Some critics see it as Feng's bid to be taken, well, seriously.
"(He wants) to be the next Zhang Yimou," says China Daily cultural critic Raymond Zhou, referring to the director of 2002's international hit, Hero. "But if this is a misstep, he could be the next Chen Kaige." Zhou is talking about last year's The Promise, Chen's flaming wreck of a film, which was also the most expensive in Chinese history.
The Banquet's success could prove the commercial viability of China's film industry. The film is different from Feng's box office hits, and his choices for The Banquet hint that he is looking overseas.
The director has said as much. "It seems like Western audiences have an easier time accepting Asian stories set in ancient times. That's a reality," Feng told reporters in February. "I don't think it's a good thing, but for me, I wanted to make that kind of change."
The Banquet may well appeal to Western moviegoers, who fell hard for Crouching Tiger and again for Hero, both of which featured wushu and Zhang. But it was scorn from Chinese – not Western – viewers that sunk The Promise. Some Chinese critics have said that making a film so similar is risky for Feng.
"If it's as good as Hero that means it probably still has to go one step further," says Zhou, contending that Chinese expectations are higher than Western ones.
"American Idol is in its fourth year in the US and it still works very well. But Supergirl is less popular than last year," he notes. "Chinese people need something new."
Risky or not, Feng worked with some of the business's best creative minds. Both art director Tim Yip and composer Tan Dun have won Oscars, and famed choreographer Yuen Wo-ping devised the violence. With these ingredients and Zhang's appeal, The Banquet promises, at the very least, to be a spread of sensual delights.
(That's Beijing September 14, 2006)