Thursday, October 21, 2010

Legend of the Black Scorpion (The Banquet) - Blu-ray review

Ever since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” wowed audiences worldwide with its breathtaking brand of artistic martial arts, many period films from then on have tried to emulate or surpass that same formula, to a degree of success. Director Feng Xiaogang's 2006 period film, “The Banquet” or better known here by its international title, “Legend of the Black Scorpion,” is probably one of the more successful ones. It is a strikingly gorgeous film, filled with stunning sets, a highly competent cast of actors and actresses and of course, intricately-crafted fights and swordplay, played out almost like a deadly performance of martial arts ballet. It is definitely up there with some of the great period films to come out of China in recent years. Yet, there are some issues that I feel need addressing.

Legend of the Black Scorpion” is loosely based on William Shakespeare's famous play “Hamlet,” where many of the film's characters and its story elements can be directly attributed to the Bard's tragic story of the Danish Prince. However, Feng has taken liberties with some of the main plot points, much like Akira Kurosawa's own adaptations of “Macbeth” and “King Lear,” which became “Throne of Blood” and “Ran” respectively. As the story goes, the current Emperor has just been secretly killed by his own brother Li (You Ge), who has installed himself as the new ruler. Not only has Li usurped the throne, he has also taken the Emperor's wife, the young and beautiful Wan, played by the diminutive Zhang Ziyi, as his next Empress. Years before, the Crown Prince, Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) had exiled himself to a life of learning music and the arts after seeing his father take Wan, the woman whom he has feelings for, as his wife. Now that his father's dead, Wan fears for Wu Luan's life and sends word to him, imploring him to come home and avenge his father.
In this film, unlike the play, Empress Wan, is not Crown Prince Wu Luan's biological mother but the late Emperor's second wife and his stepmother. Their attraction to one another mirrors the Oedipal desires felt by Hamlet towards his own mother, Gertrude. However, where Queen Gertrude was but a morally complicit and weak character in the play, Zhang's Empress Wan is conniving and the lynchpin of the story, manipulating the strings behind the scenes. By plotting the murder of the new Emperor, she hopes to one day, rule the kingdom and have Wu Luan all to herself. And she doesn't care whom she hurts in order to reach her desired goal.

As most stories of royal intrigue go, this one has its own set of complications as well. To execute her coup, the Empress knows well enough that she can't pull it off all by herself. That's where the Yin family comes in. Qing (Xun Zhou), the daughter of Minister Yin (Jinwu Ma) is in love with Wu Luan as well. Unlike the scheming Empress, Qing is a delicate flower, innocent beyond reproach. Using Qing as her own pawn, the Empress forces the hand of Minister Yin and his son, General Yin Sun (Xiaoming Huang) to side with her in her plot to assassinate the Emperor. As for the new ruler himself, Li is considerably blinded by lust for his new muse and actively seeks her affection in whatever way possible. To commemorate her ascension to be his new Empress, Li orders a royal banquet be held, one in which the final chess moves in this sordid tale of royal intrigue are set in motion.
Like “Hamlet,” “Legend of the Black Scorpion” is inherently dark and tragic, with nary a hint of silver lining throughout the entire story. The color red signifies good luck in Chinese culture and it is the predominant color of choice in this film. However, with the extraordinary bloodletting that splashes across the screen in many of the action scenes, red--the color of blood--is used instead to symbolize murder, greed, double-cross and finally, tragedy. In the end, evil begets more evil and even the innocent and good are sucked into its vortex of darkness. There are no two ways about it. Feng Xiaogang's re-telling of “Hamlet” is a beautifully-crafted and tragic story from start to finish.

With “Legend of the Black Scorpion,” Feng Xiaogang has joined fellow Chinese director luminaries like Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee and John Woo in directing a period epic. With the help of the legendary Yuen Wo-Ping and Tan Dun (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) working on the martial arts choreography and music score respectively plus Tim Yip's (also of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” fame) gorgeous sets and art direction, Feng had all the right elements in place to create a cinematic masterpiece and he did. Except for a couple of nagging flaws with the story and characterization, “Legend of the Black Scorpion” is right up there with the best in Chinese period dramas, exuding slick martial arts action, coupled together with beautifully-built sets that rival most other movies in terms of sheer size, opulence and breathtaking imagery.
For all of the film's many positives, there are however, some nagging negatives as well. Let's start with how the so-called protagonist of the story, Crown Prince Wu Luan--the Hamlet character of this story--is portrayed so passively, becoming almost a nonentity in a story so rich with intrigue and emotions. It is so incredibly maddening to see Wu Luan hold himself back as people around him die and even when presented with the coup de grace, he could not will himself act upon his hunger to avenge his father's death. Maybe Wu Luan's years of devotion to the arts has softened his rage but as the so-called protagonist of the story, I truly expected so much more from the character.

One more thing that I found so maddening is the controversial ending. Not to give anything away but the identity of the final assassin is never revealed. Only the surprised face of the victim gives away the fact that he or she is known. But by that point of the story, with all of the principal characters already dead, we can only assume that the killer is one of the minor characters. Even Bey Logan, the Hong Kong cinema expert who provided the audio commentary for this film, is stumped and can only speculate on the killer's identity.
On the heels of its DVD release,” Legend of the Black Scorpion” come to high-definition in a Dragon Dynasty Blu-ray Ultimate Edition single-disc release. The 1080p images, framed at the movie's original ratio of 2.35:1, is as gorgeous and detailed as the movie is beautiful. It is definitely a step up from the DVD release's already great video presentation. The depth and clarity of the high-definition presentation is obvious from the first frame with the many slow-motion sequences adding to that effect. Colors are simply dazzling to behold with lush green landscapes, inky blacks and the perfect redness of the silk adorning Zhang Ziyi's costumes. Skin tones look natural (as much as the make-up hides) and close-ups do much in a way of showcasing the clarity. However, I did see some softness in certain scenes but they do little to keep me in awe of the inspiring images.

The main audio track is the Mandarin DTS HD-Master 5.1 mix and it is just as good as the video presentation. Compared to the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks that are also included on the disc, this high-def DTS track feels world's apart. The soundfield is immediately opened up to such a degree that every aural element seems amped up, from the highs to the lows. The surrounds are used effectively to add dramatic effect and also to showcase some directionality, especially during the fight scenes. There is also a good amount of oomph coming from the .1 LFE, adding much-needed booms to action sequences. The other audio track included on this Blu-ray are Dolby Digital 5.1 in Mandarin and English. Subtitles are available in English, English SDH and Spanish.
Special Features:
For all the improvements in the video and audio department, Dragon Dynasty dropped the ball in the special features section. All of the features found here are directly ported over from the DVD release without any upgrades, with even an extra featurette and a Cannes promo left out. They are all presented in 480p video and 2-channel audio. First, there is a highly informative audio commentary by resident Dragon Dynasty Asian cinema expert Bey Logan. Next, we have one-on-one video interviews with director Feng Xiaogang and actor Daniel Wu. Rounding up the features section is a making-of featurette, “A Dynasty Uncovered: Behind the Scenes on Legend of the Black Scorpion” and a trailer gallery.

Bottom Line:
Legend of the Black Scorpion” is a crowning achievement for director Feng Xiaogang, whose previous work have mainly been, shockingly, black comedies and modern dramas. To achieve what he did on an such an elaborate costume period epic is stunning. In terms of artistry and design, “Legend” has few equals. While just falling slightly short in the storytelling department, this film makes up for it big time in others. Not to be missed!

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