Vivendi Visual Entertainment // 2006 // 125 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // October 26th, 2010
To wire-fu or not to wire-fu? That is the question.
The story of Hamlet is probably one of the most filmed tales in existence. You see straight adaptations all the time, but sometimes a director will use the story as a basic template to spring from. Akira Kurosawa did with with The Bad Sleep Well which transported the story into the 1960s corporate world. Now it's director Xiaogang Feng's turn with Legend of the Black Scorpion. He puts the story into ancient China, during the tumultuous Five Dynasty Ten Kingdoms period.
Emperor Li (You Ge) has taken control of the throne after his brother dies under mysterious circumstances. He takes the former Empress Wan (Ziyi Zhang) as his wife and begins his ruling. Of course he has one little problem, Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu). Not only is the prince rightfully in line for the crown, but the Empress is actually his stepmother. Wan and Wu Luan grew up together as children and the connection between them is strong. The Emperor does everything in his power to stop Wu Luan from coming to the palace, but nothing goes as planned.
The prince is thirsting for revenge, and the empress realizes how much she cares for the him. But how far will she go to save his life. As for the titular black scorpion, well, just how do you think the Emperor died in the first place?
Originally titled "The Banquet," this movie nearly rivals the big budget scope that Kenneth Branaugh attempted in his version of Hamlet. The production design is really something else. A massive set was constructed for the palace interiors, in full scale and with multiple levels. This allowed director Xiaogang Feng to move his camera around freely, never having to worry about exposing any behind the scenes elements. Location shooting is done with maximum cinematic beauty in mind. You get lush bamboo forests, frozen snowy tundra, rushing rivers and harsh deserts. It creates an environment that completely envelopes the characters and gives the movie an opulence and majesty you don't often see.
Feng keeps all this in mind and uses the camera to lovingly captures the surroundings, the lavish costumes and the actors faces. He takes his time with shots, letting us soak in the details and build his moods. He's very effective at creating feelings of oppression and dread, but there are moments of peace and reflection, where he keeps things more intimate.
The director also uses sound and music to great advantage. There are so many moments of powerful visual symbolism combined with a key amplified sound or a chilly silence. An intriguing musical score by Tan Dun adds to the film. Dun creates a song that is vital to the story, and weaves it into the score and into the film. The style is similar to his work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but with a more opulent sound that fits the film like a glove.
On the acting front you've got a solid cast doing a good job with the parts they are given. My favorites were the royal duo. You Ge is excellent as the deadly, untrusting, and powerful Emperor. He rarely lets his guard down, but when we do see his passions flare, he does it with skill. It's a good take on the villainous role. But I have to say that Ziyi Zhang tops him. She's got the juiciest part in the film, playing a woman who ascends to power, first because she wants to live, but more and more because she can use it to get what she wants. Desire fuels the film, and Zhang lets us see it in her eyes. This is a great part for her and she really nails it. And yes, she gets an action scene or two.
Dragon Dynasty provides a solid release here. The picture looks excellent, not an easy feat with a movie that has so many deep blacks and browns for its interiors. The DTS Mandarin track is excellent too, balancing all the sound, music and dialogue elements well. Subtitles are clear and easy to read. For extras you get a pretty good selection, including a full length audio commentary by Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan. He knows his stuff, having worked in the industry and actually visited the set during the filming. Next are two interviews, one with the director Feng and one with Daniel Wu who plays the prince. The first interview is subtitled and runs about 20 minutes. Wu's interview is in English, as he was raised in the U.S., and also lasts about 20 minutes. Finally there is a 40 minute behind the scenes EPK, completely subtitled.
A couple of things keep me from really getting behind the movie. The most glaring problem is that its a slog to get through. Action fans, this is not going to work for you in any way. Yes there are fight scenes. Yes they are impressive. Yes they are filled with gravity defying wire fu, but they are few and far between. This is not an action adventure epic, it's a costume drama with a few sword fights in it.
That doesn't bother me actually. The problem goes beyond all the talking and into the pacing and execution. All those glorious shots, symbolic moments and cinematic vistas take time away from the characters and the plot. Yes, it's based on Hamlet, but the story goes through enough twists that you don't really know how it will end. Tragic, sure, but just how tragic?
Because of all the meandering sequences, long slow pans, and balletic action scenes that went on way too long, I stopped caring who was doing what. The truth is most of the roles are underwritten here, especially the key role of the prince. Daniel Wu does what he can with the part, but there just isn't much there. That goes for just about everyone except for the royal pair. I think the action scenes were supposed to help inject a bit of urgency into the film, but they only slow it down more. We don't really care about these people, so who cares if they are in peril? And to do it all in slow motion just makes it feel even longer.
Finally, this movie feels cold and calculated, in a bad way. So much of it feels like it borrows from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero but without the understanding of what made those films work. Sure we get Ziyi Zhang, Tan Dun, bamboo forests, Imperial palaces, ruthless guards and Yuen Wo-Ping coordinating the fight scenes again, but it all feels like a full blown attempt to one-up the previous films without the heart and desire to tell a good story.
Director Feng says in his interview that he had never directed a movie of this scope and style before. He usually does dark comedies. He wanted to do something with immense visual and audio power. Yes, he got his wish, but indulged that desire so much that the heart of the movie -- the characters -- is left too thin, and it just never clicks.
Guilty of needing more matter and less art.
Review content copyright © 2010 Roman Martel; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Mandarin)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mandarin)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia: Hamlet
* Wikipedia: Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period