Monday, June 16, 2008

Ye yan (2006)

Prince Wu Luan played by Daniel Wu
Directed by Xiaogang Feng

Publicised as a re-imagining of Hamlet set in feudal China and produced in the style of such costumed martial arts epics as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Yimou Zhang’s Hero, Xiaogang Feng’s film seems to have all of the elements of the play as though they were rewritten by someone who once saw the Mel Gibson version on television years ago. The treacherous marriage and coronation don’t happen until the middle act, and it's here also that we find something akin to The Mousetrap and Hamlet’s subsequent banishment. Most of the recognisable figures appear, though arguably the attitudes of Claudius and Gertrude have been reverse and she’s an old girlfriend of the prince rather than his mother. There are some nice tips of the hat in the production design with an opening battle in a bamboo theatre shaped like the globe and masks evoking a human skull.

The Banquet
(to offer its uk title) is sumptuously languid. There certainly flashes of brilliance, when Tan Dun’s music conspires with Timmy Yip’s art direction and Li Zhang’s cinematography to produce some arresting images. Ziyi Zhang’s multi-layered performance as the Gertude figure is often wrenching and stands out from a crowd of rather dower blokes. But the computer generated shots of the palace and landscape look dated and the fight sequences are pretty unspectacular in comparison to those featured in Yimou Zhang’s films, and most damagingly, the story simply isn’t as compelling or mysterious as it could be. Partly this is as a result of trying to move someone else’s narrative furniture around, but it can’t quite decide who the audience should be sympathising with.

Feng has clearly found a muse in Ziyi Zhang but his visual worship of her unbalances our attention away from what Shakespeare knew was important, Hamlet (or in this case Wu Luan)’s vengeance. It’s not necessarily a fair comparison, but when Kurasawa took an interest in the Bard, his adaptations faithfully followed the original plot and whenever his dialogue couldn’t evoke Shakespeare’s poetry he let the photography fill in the metaphoric blanks. In that way, the characters remained psychologically complex even as we gasped at the wind in the trees and the sand storms in the desert. It’s interesting to note that when Akira tackled Hamlet, he transposed it to present day. You can’t help but wonder if Feng hadn’t ignored Shakespeare completely he might have produced a more interesting and to be less boring film.

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