Shades of "Hamlet" hang heavy over "The Banquet," a dark costumer of Chinese courtly intrigue in which the production design too often overpowers the protags. A big career swerve for helmer Feng Xiaogang, drama looks to be a tough sell beyond specialist venues, even in Asia and with Ziyi Zhang's name attached.

Though the Bard isn’t listed in the credits, shades of “Hamlet” — and even more, of “Macbeth” — hang heavy over “The Banquet,” a dark costumer of Chinese courtly intrigue in which the production design too often overpowers the protags. A big career swerve for Mainland helmer Feng Xiaogang (“A World Without Thieves”), after a decade of ironic comedy hits, this visually opulent but stately and stygian drama looks to be a tough sell beyond specialist venues, even in Asia and with Ziyi Zhang’s name attached. Trimming of the two-hour-plus running time could help marginally.

Auds not up to the mark on their Shakespeare needn’t worry, as script only uses the barest framework of “Hamlet,” and even diminishes the title role. In making the Gertrude character into a leading player alongside King Claudius, and a venomous one at that, it’s also equally infused with the spirit of “Macbeth.”

As well as for Feng, picture is a sizable gamble for Beijing production house Huayi Brothers and the Mainland industry in general. Latter has become increasingly dependant on big budget spectacles, and another opulent costume drama, Zhang Yimou’s “Curse of the Golden Flower,” is due soon. “Banquet’s” tab is reportedly around 150 million yuan ($18 million), big by Chinese standards though less than half of “Flower’s” reported figure.

Crew includes several talents from international hits, including action director Yuen Wo-ping (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), p.d. Tim Yip (ditto) and composer Tan Dun (ditto, plus “Hero”). Yip’s massive, vaulted sets and funereal colors — deep blacks, plus shades of reds and golds — are impressive in the short term, as is Tan’s powerful, barbaric music; but over the long span of 129 minutes, there’s not enough relief or variety. Yuen’s occasional, brief action scenes lack originality.

First and foremost, “The Banquet” is a tragedy, not an actioner. Setting is the Period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (A.D. 907-60), a time of royal instability in the north and warring states in the south.

In an unnamed kingdom, there lives Li (Feng regular Ge You, in the Claudius role), who’s murdered his brother and become emperor. Li long lusted after his brother’s young wife, Wan (Zhang, as Gertrude), whose sexual needs were barely catered for during her marriage; but she only has eyes for her stepbrother, Wu Luan (Daniel Wu, a kind of Hamlet).

Li sends soldiers south to kill Wu Luan, who was banished there by the original emperor. In a memorable set piece — set in a multi-tiered bamboo theater in a forest — that mixes action and theatrical mime (with players wearing masks), Wu Luan fights off his assassins and heads north to seek revenge on Li.

Opening reels stress the sensuality of Wan and brutality of Li as both engage in a slow power waltz. Wan finally agrees to marry Li and become empress, but at the coronation party Wu Luan and his troupe mime a drama in which a king is murdered by poison in the ear.

Enraged, Li banishes Wu Luan, much to the distress of Qing Nu (Zhou Xun) who loves him and the jealousy of Wan.

When Li decides to throw a banquet for his ministers, Wu Luan returns just when Wan is also planning to murder Li. Qing Nu’s father also has his own plans.

Final half-hour, set during the banquet, is certainly gripping, as the pieces come together and slaughter of Jacobean proportions ensues. Till then, however, pic only comes alive spasmodically, not helped by the principals’ slow, pregnant delivery of their lines, lack of acting chemistry (normally a strength of Feng’s pics), and the unremittingly gloomy look. Even when the action goes outside, Feng and lenser Zhang Li still maintain the heavy color chiaroscuro.

Zhou, in a relatively small role, grows in her character as the film progresses, though her more everyday speaking voice is at odds with the elevated tone adopted by other principals. Ge is fine as the manipulative Li, and Hong Kong thesp Wu adequate in the slimly drawn part of Wu Luan.

Main problem is Zhang, who carries herself with all the bearing of a power-hungry, lovelorn empress but doesn’t project the necessary charisma of an evil queen. Role requires a more experienced, older actress to fill the screen, even though her perf is OK on a purely technical level.

The Banquet

China-Hong Kong

Production

A Huayi Brothers Pictures (China)/Media Asia Films (Hong Kong) presentation of a Huayi Brothers Pictures production. (International sales: Huayi, Beijing/Media Asia, H.K.) Produced by Wang Zhongjun, John Chong. Executive producers, Yuen Wo-ping, Wang Zhonglei. Executives in charge of production, Qiu Gangjian, Lorraine Ho. Directed by Feng Xiaogang. Screenplay, Sheng Heyu, Qiu Gangjian.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor prints, widescreen), Zhang Li; editor, Liu Miaomiao; music, Tan Dun; piano, Lang Lang; vocals, Teng Geer, Zhou Xun, Zhang Liangying; production-costume designer, Tim Yip; sound (Dolby Digital), Wang Danrong; action choreography, Yuen's Stunt Team; visual effects supervisor, Phil Jones; visual effects producer, Jiang Yanming. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (non-competing), Sept. 2, 2006. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Gala Presentations.) Running time: 129 MIN.

With

Ziyi Zhang, Ge You, Daniel Wu, Zhou Xun, Ma Jingwu, Huang Xiaoming. (Mandarin dialogue)
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