A Custom Honored More in the Breach Than the Observance

You’d be excused for not knowing Xiaogang Feng’s The Banquet was available now on DVD considering it’s made its way to American shores with the ridiculous title Legend of the Black Scorpion. It could be worse. We could be forced to watch deleted scenes with commentary on, editing them back into the film in our heads to get some idea of what the original cut of the film looked like, as was the case with Chen Kaige’s The Promise (excuse me, I mean Master of the Crimson Armor).

Feng’s version of Hamlet is set in A.D. 907 during the tumultuous era of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms in China. On the throne sits Emperor Li, the usurper who who has stolen both his brother’s crown and his wife. His nephew Prince Wu Luan has been away from the palace studying in seclusion, when events draw him back and he begins to suspect that his father’s death was not a natural one. So far so familiar.

But Feng has added new layers to the story that complicate things still more. The Empress was once in love with the Prince, but she was compelled to marry his father. It becomes clear that at least one reason she agrees to marry Li is in the hopes of protecting Wu Luan’s life. Any Oedipal undertones simmering under the surface in Shakespeare’s play are smoldering like a bonfire here.

There’s more: Wu Luan/Hamlet does not feign madness even for a moment in this version. His intent in most cases is written all over his face. When he claims that in wearing a mask, a performer can achieve the “highest level of art,” the Empress Wan, a much cannier Gertrude than you’ve ever seen is indignant. “The highest level is to use your own face and turn it into a mask.”

The motif of the mask appears again and again in the film. Overtly it is seen in the performer’s mask that Wu Luan wears on and off the stage which with each successive appearance grows blacker and more pitted as his deadly resolve progresses toward its resolution. When Emperor Li first appears on screen, clad in his late brother’s armor, the Empress peers at his helmeted face and observes that it “does not sit well on you.” The Empress herself is the exemplar of the mask, not as Wu Luan believes it to function, as a force for expression, but as disguise. Forced to submerge the desire for her stepson, and to appear to love Li in order to save Wu Luan’s life, her persona is one built up of supreme self control and illusion.

This is seen by others as pliability. It is well known that she favored Wu Luan before agreeing to marry his father and now she in turn has married his uncle. She is compared to a snow leopard that “changes to fit the season.” Qing (Ophelia) remarking to her father that she “cannot set the eyes of the phoenix right” in a piece of embroidery she is sewing is told “(i)magine the eyes of Empress Wan.” When the conversation escalates to a warning to her to avoid Wu Luan, she explains that her “heart will never change” to which he commands: “Make it change. Learn from the Empress.”

This multilayered character, portrayed to perfection by Zhang Ziyi is one of the delights of the film. And it’s a vindication of Feng’s approach against any who would take umbrage at the source material being tampered with in any way. He doesn’t just use the setting of a 10th century Chinese court for the sumptuous costumes and resplendent backdrop. He lets it inform the work, making changes where it adds complexity to character or the dramatic structure. When she claims to her stepson that she is a “helpless” woman we are meant to snicker a bit as it’s becoming apparent what she is capable of, but in many ways it is true. As in Curse of the Golden Flower (seriously who is coming up with the English titles? Franklin W. Dixon?) an Empress may wield considerable power but be powerless to realize her true desires. That internal conflict is a nice undercurrent to the revenge tragedy. It is ironic that while Wan is celebrated for her mercurial ability to adapt, in truth her love for Wu Luan is unchanging.

Other directors, choosing to set their adaptations in a different era than the one indicated in the original play have rarely fared this well. Perhaps because unlike those in The Banquet, the alterations brought nothing new to the work. McKellan’s Richard III takes place in some kind of fascist never-never land with lots of brown shirts and jack boots provided by the costume department. But this imagery works by association, not metaphor. It really doesn’t have anything in particular to say. It merely indicates that Richard’s England can be said to have a family resemblance to perhaps Nazi Germany or Franco’s Spain. Branagh’s limp Loves Labour’s Lost is seemingly populated with Bright Young People to keep the audience awake by inserting a few song and dance numbers.

The original text of the play however usually remains intact, with cuts mostly in the service of cutting down the runtime to something filmgoers are accustomed to. But the hard truth is that Shakespeare simply doesn’t adapt readily to film. All the fireworks are going on in the language but the audience is looking for them on screen. That’s why directors like McKellan or Taymor try to dream up something for the audience to gawk at. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is probably the most egregious case. All the guns brandished around and cars screaming out of exploding gas stations give the impression that Luhrmann is frankly a little embarrassed by all the speechifying and wants to get back to tropes and cliches that the audience can recognize and feel comfortable with. When we think of a “language” of film after all it is almost wholly one of the eye: the montage, the quick cut, the zoom, the close up. When it comes to the ear, voice-over is the only alternate technique to simple dialogue in the director’s arsenal that comes to mind. The music soundtrack ends up doing the heavy lifting. We do well to remember that cinema got along just fine without sound for quite a while. If title cards were needed at all, they were invariably brief. Even today we say “I’m going to see a movie tonight.” Conversely, Hamlet announces after the arrival of the actors at Elsinore that “we’ll hear a play tomorrow.” Yes we will Prince, but no one’s listening.

In most cases the place where the visual and the spoken lines meet becomes a kind of fault line: two plates grating against one another that inevitably wear down the audience. Perhaps the reason that Zeferelli’s Hamlet is so successful is that he makes abundant use of the close up, drawing the viewer’s attention back to spoken word. It may not make the most of the capabilities of cinema, but as a delivery vehicle for Shakespeare’s play, it’s a nice compromise. Feng’s solution is to wring as much out of visual possibilities of the setting as possible (I’m pretty sure the images of the masked players at the opening of the film and their pantomimed gestures during the Imperial Guard’s attack will be with me for a long time) while jettisoning Shakespeare’s dialogue in favor of lines that are pithy but replete with meaning, misdirection and double entendres. When Wu Yuan hears that his father has been killed by a scorpion he is surprised that there would be any inside the palace. Qing replies “they say you can find anything in the palace.” After losing a mock combat that is a rehearsal for the Queen’s coronation, Wu Yuan states “I am dead.” When questioned as to what he died of, the Emperor who had planned to have Wu Yuan killed during the performance offers “he mistook a deadly combat for a show.” Nearly everything new adds another dimension to the drama without diminishing the original. There is a nice exchange not found anywhere in the play where Qing’s brother admonishes Wu Yuan for the selfishness of his revenge, reminding him of the many who will suffer or die due to his single-mindedness.

There are enough hard-liners out there who’ll no doubt find the loss of the original text as unforgivable. I consider it a happy accident. I’m not sure how well the nuances of the original can be transfered into Mandarin or Cantonese to begin with. What we’re left with is something that complements the original but is a pleasure in its own right like Endgame or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It’s worthy of mention that another of the best cinematic offerings based on Shakespeare, Kurosawa’s Ran, also used the source material to lay the groundwork without letting it harden into unyielding cement.

On a final note I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this film ultimately falls within the genre of wuxia, meaning you’ll find the occasional sword fight as well as the acrobatics, kung fu and wire work typical of movies like House of Flying Daggers. I know that’s not to everyone’s taste so I can only plead that in my experience, good things are where you find them. Learn from the Empress.


2 Responses to “A Custom Honored More in the Breach Than the Observance”

  1. 1 The Eighth Art September 4, 2008 at 10:10 am

    You’ve definitely got me. I’m off to the video store as soon as I got off work. Great post. I’ve been a fan of Ziy Zhang for some time. I thought she was good in Hero, great in House of Flying Daggers and absolutely impeccable in 2046.

  2. 2 hideoussunday September 4, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    Awesome! I realized after writing the post that I might come off as some kind of Philistine who hates all that hi-falutin’ stuff, but Hamlet is probably my fav piece of lit of all time. But I like me some One Armed Swordsman too 🙂 There’s actually a LOT less of the wuxia stuff in this one – closer to Curse of the Golden Flower than Flying Daggers. And oh yes – 2046 was beautiful (if all over the place).

    Don’t worry about the cigars – my friend has taken to having his pipe in the evening – I think both are a better alternative to chain smoking your way through the day.

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