Zhang Ziyi and action director Yuen Woo-Ping last worked together in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a movie which helped change audience perception that martial arts movies can be artful and open the door for similar movies such as "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers." Their latest collaboration, "The Banquet," looks just as good as "Crouching Tiger," but the film is undermined by a story element that’s over-used in recent wuxia epics from China. More on that later.
Let’s start with the craftsmanship on "The Banquet." It’s impeccable. I give the people who worked on the visuals an A, maybe even an A+. You will not find a single frame in this film that wouldn’t make a great wallpaper. The costumes and sets, which are meticulously designed, look amazing. The locations are appropriately picturesque. The two lead actresses even become part of the eye candy. Some of the cinematography look like it came straight from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." The effects work, mostly used to show off the grandness of the palace, is solid for a Chinese production.
Now here’s my major beef with the movie – "Banquet" is another wuxia epic with a love triangle. There’s one in "Hero," "House of Flying Daggers," "Seven Swords," and "The Promise." That said, of the bunch, including "The Banquet," "Hero" is most successful in its usage. But enough is enough already. Doesn’t China have any other types of stories to tell? China shouldn’t be banning directors like Lou Ye from making controversial films; it should be banning the love triangle from the wuxia genre. Please, no more. The story, about one woman’s ascension to the top of the imperial ladder, is straight-forward enough and easy to follow, but there’s really not enough here for a feature length film.
There’s also not a single sympathetic character in the film. We’re supposed to be rooting for the late Emperor’s son Wu Luan (Dan Wu) to avenge his father’s death and become the rightful ruler, but he spends most of his time brooding. I’m not sure if Empress Wan (Zhang Ziyi) is sleeping her way to the top out of pure ambition or out of necessity or both. Either way, it’s difficult to sympathize with an Empress who secretly lusts for her step-son. The Grand Marshall’s family is pretty dysfunctional as well. The brother lusts after his sister, who is in love with Wu Luan. It’s all very incestuous. I don’t have any problems keeping up with who’s lusting after whom, but the movie doesn’t make me want to care about any part of it.
For a film in which the action is directed by legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, the fight scenes are pretty tepid and unimaginative. Zhang Ziyi doesn’t have a single fight scene. She spends most of her screen time in lavish costumes.
In summary, “The Banquet” is a visually stunning film, but I wish the visual elements are employed in the service of a better story. That’s pretty much what other critics are saying too. Variety’s Derek Elley thinks the "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." The Hollywood Reporter’s Kirk Honeycutt says "The Banquet" wastes its "astonishing" and "strikingly beautiful" production "with a cliched, long-winded, logic-busting, overacted film that at times seems like a parody of the martial arts genre." Screen Daily’s Dan Fainaru thinks it’s "way too long for its own good, and may prove quick-lived at box offices after initial attention."