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Capsule Reviews

The Banquet    (2006)
We waited long but finally the mire that has pervaded martial arts cinema parted to make way for what hopefully may be the first positive evolution this genre has seen in years. From its frenzied, creative golden age during the 90's, with Hong Kong movie makers graduating into the best action wuxia ever made along the lines of The East is Red, Iron Monkey and dozens others, kung fu movies descended into the doldrums of pompous pretense and self-importance post-Crouching Tiger. This over-produced, artificial and often generic galore has given us barely-coherent efforts like The Promise, Seven Swords and The Myth.

All of the above looked like an exercise in budgeting inflation, but had nothing to do with the fun and energy we came to expect from the delectable mix of wires, hyperactive protagonists and made-up fairy tale storylines. So it is with utmost pleasant surprise that we accept The Banquet, coming from the least predictable of source. Its director, Feng Xiaogang, was previously responsible for rather mediocre products such as World without Thieves and Big Shot's Funeral, but still he's managed to come up with the most candid entry into the pantheon in years.

Combining the resplendent artistic sensitivities of catalog piece Hero with the no-holds-barred salaciousness so missed from aeons passed was no mean feat, but here we are, watching the result, a film that almost gets the best of both worlds down pat. The Banquet unfolds like a good old fable, starting with the usual shtick about ancient kingdoms falling apart and chaos plaguing the land, a prologue seeming a touch Lord of the Rings-esque. It proceeds to provide us with solid characters and an involved plot, compounded by several bits of genuine action and steamy sensuality.

Unlike all of its recent predecessors, The Banquet doesn't shy away from copious spurts of blood, and has many of its participants frolicking all over the shop barely clothed, recalling the halcyon days when Tsui Hark was actually making movies you'd care to watch. And once looking beyond the hackneyed setting, with its wicked emperor and suffering victims, there's quite a lot to relish in The Banquet, especially its message that greed and self-sacrifice equally do not pay off in the long run.

Ge You (Cala My Dog, World without Thieves) at long last proves his mettle as Emperor Li, an usurper on the throne with little aspiration for power and more of an emphasis on milking his new posting for all it's worth. That mostly entails having a good time with Empress Wan, done very nicely by Zhang Ziyi, who's finally, finally herself again, almost six years after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Not only is she even more gorgeous than back in the fickle dotcom boom period, she's again doing the kind of character tailored to her skills: a sinister, scheming but endlessly attractive femme fatale. The Geisha and her freaking memoirs is dead, long live the Empress!

Traipsing around these two conniving masterminds are the innocent good guys. They consist of Daniel Wu as Price Luan, exiled by the emperor but coming back to reclaim his birthright from a tenure among mysterious be-masked artists we wish the movie would show more of. His soul mate is Zhou Xun as Qing, daughter of a disgruntled politician and imperial courtesan, (Ma Jing Wu), whose overly-dramatic manner nonetheless ends up totally believable.

The setup, resembling in many pleasant ways traditional theater tragedy, enjoys prominent beefing up using strong visuals and impressive action bits that do not overwhelm with self-importance since they really amount to a small portion of The Banquet's running time. Sure, some of it looks too much like a night at the dance hall, but behold the cool Imperial guards in action and you'll forgive Yuen Woo Ping the occasional indiscretion. What's more, the obvious absence of any strangely-invincible characters shows just how much The Banquet doesn't take itself seriously: sooner or later, everyone gets hacked.

Tan Dun, the composer from Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, also returned with a superb soundtrack that works, a change from these bloated showpieces we've been subjected to for over half a decade. This complements a plethora of inventive tricks connecting The Banquet with its older, trailblazing relatives. Great use of masks, theme songs, stage play and language distinguish proceedings, plus a glimpse of Zhang Ziyi's butt certainly helps.

This is a good movie, no two ways about it, except it misses a glorious opportunity to finish on just the note expected in top-notch tragedy, the ilk of story it belongs to at the end of the day: an extra ten minutes that feel needlessly tacked-on transpire, but at least they involve more of Zhang Ziyi's evil prancing and the most blunt whodunit in living memory, so why complain? The best thing to be said about The Banquet is that it'll be a long wait until the home video release comes along. It's a compelling, well-crafted release that manages to walk the line between big-buck production and wild martial arts abandon. For that, we applaud it.
Lee Alon 9/22/2006 - top

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 9/22/2006 Lee Alon

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