Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Banquet - Hamlet as Wuxia

A couple weeks ago, I discovered The Banquet (out on DVD as Legend of the Black Scorpion), a Chinese reimagining of Hamlet as a wuxia swordplay epic set in the corrupt Tang Dynasty, starring Zhang Ziyi and directed by Feng Xiaogang. Obviously, The Banquet doesn't use Shakespeare's text, but it does use his characters, scenes and metaphors as a template. Structurally, it's very different. We remain in the first Act for at least the first hour of the film, and the ending (who dies when and by whose hand) is extremely different (notably, Hamlet never kills Polonius). I've decided to add this film to those studied, but only to come back to it on about a handful of scenes with direct parallels to the play. In the present article, I'll discuss some of the more important staging choices made by the writers and director, those that resonate throughout the film.

Focus on Gertrude
The Banquet plays a lot like the Gertrude version of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. We see the story from her perspective (or Empress Wan's, if we go by the film's character names). Originally designed for an actress of Gong Li's age, the role was instead offered to Zhang Ziyi and so made Hamlet (Prince Wu Luan)'s stepmother, actually a few years younger than he is. The film manages to use the Freudian baggage often associated with the Hamlet/Gertrude relationship without making it disturbing and distracting. These characters are contemporaries, and Wan is the dead emperor's second wife. In any case, the focus on the Empress makes me realize how badly served the female characters are in the play (uncharacteristically so, by Shakespeare's standards). In the play, both Gertrude and Ophelia are essentially puppers, dominated by men. By making Gertrude/Wan the protagonist, the film must find motivations where there was, at most, ambiguity before, as well as create many scenes from whole cloth.

For example, The Banquet shows not only how the Claudius character (Emperor Li) fell in love with Wan, and what kind of hold she has on him, but also how he cut into the line of succession. Just as in the play, the son should have inherited the throne from the father. The Empress' fear and political maneuvers give Li power instead, as a way of saving her adopted son/former lover from being assassinated. This is a really interesting interpretation, that makes the Empress an unwilling wife who sacrifices herself to protect Hamlet/Wu Luan and has her own revenge brewing. Imagine a Gertrude who is always lying while in court and who drinks the poison willingly at the end to save Hamlet (some have done this). How does that play? Can such an interpretation be reconciled with the closet scene? I think that it perhaps can, as Gertrude can be distraught at her son's apparent madness more than at the revelation of her second husband's treachery. In a play that is very much about masks, what is Gertrude's? An unwilling Queen must endure grief, psychic damage from sleeping with her husband's killer, AND cruel barbs from the son she dotes on.

The other effect this structural conceit has is to marginalize the Hamlet figure. In fact, Wu Luan is a far less active character, in large part because the film forbids him the use of soliloquies. His interior life must be created with looks and acting alone, making the character far more passive.

Hamlet Under Fire
Another very interesting idea in The Banquet is to make Hamlet the target of multiple assassination attempts before the final scene (or I should say, before the trip to "England"). In fact, the film begins with one such attempts while he is at "Wittenberg" (in the film, a theater in the forest). Claudius/Li arranges a training "accident" when he returns to "Elsinore". His escort jumps him on the road. And so on. The idea, of course, is that the ruthless Emperor wants to ensure his place on the throne by killing off his brother's heir(s), and idea that will be familiar to Shakspeare adepts from Richard III. The effect this has on the play is to generate more paranoia than is usual (in a play where people are already constantly listening to you behind an arras), as well as playing up the corrupt political side of Elsinore and Claudius' evil.

China White
China is rarely snow-covered in films, which creates a striking "Denmark" when season change to winter in the film. While Denmark's bitter winter has always run parallel to Hamlet Sr.'s death, a Chinese version adds another layer. White is the color of death in China, so not only do we have that represented in the landscape, but it's also the color the Prince wears - customary suits of solemn white, you might say. A white-clad Hamlet in a field of snow allows him to visually disappear in his own grief, rather than stand out from it.

There are other points I will want to make, but I'll use specific scenes to do so. Since Act 1 Scene 3 is one of those scenes, expect the next article to do just that.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Act I Scene 3 - Fodor (2007)

Scene 3 is intercut with various parts of Scene 2, every introduction in the play occurring simultaneously. In one corner of the room, then, is a much transformed "Polonius family". Fodor has already introduced us to Ophelia in the film's opening, through her death. She's a pretty young girl looking distractedly around for Hamlet, annoyed at her brother's comments about him. In Fodor's short-lived chess metaphor, she is the Red Pawn, equivalent to Hamlet's White Pawn. This is a status we're used to see Ophelia in. Her brother Laertes is the Red Knight, an homologue of Horatio.
If Ophelia is close to other interpretations (if a lot less respectful), Laertes is pretty far from the dutiful gentleman of the play. Plainly put, he is a brute with a street accent. He and Ophelia are mean to each other, showing none of the love and kindness we're used to, and his manner is somewhat threatening. She holds her own, but perhaps foolishly, if the next intervention is any indication. Enter Polonia, a transgendered Polonius, now the elder sister of a parentless family.
She represents a massive change from the play. Dubbed the Red Queen, she becomes an equivalent to Gertrude. It is true that in the play, Gertrude and Polonius both have Claudius' ear. Heart and mind, if you will. In this version, however, Polonia becomes a surrogate wife/mistress. Polonia is only different in gender, but also in attitude. As written here, her manipulative side is played up, and gone is the usual foolishness of the old man. She's at Claudius' side when she sees what could become a violence altercation between her younger siblings and moves there immediately. At the sight of her, Laertes brightens, and her opening lines ("for shame, for shame") are used to changed the subject.

It's not clear at this point if Laertes has an unnatural attitude towards Ophelia, but his relationship to Polonia is certainly disturbing. Before he leaves, she gives him a steamy kiss on the cheek that makes us believe she routinely controls him with sex. How far has this gone? By the end of Scene 3, you will be ready to believe anything of this thoroughly corrupt character. The look on her face as he leaves for "France" tells us she will miss him, and the way she then turns on Ophelia may be motivated by jealousy for the younger, prettier sister. The overall sense, however, is that of a character thriving on control. For all her seductive appeal, she treats Laertes like a little boy, handing out advice to someone who's not much younger than her. When she says "By no means vulgar", she knows that's exactly what he is (he is also quarrelsome, so he's probably a borrower, etc.). These are accusations nonetheless followed by "To thine own self be true", which sounds like Polonia is justifying her own selfishness.

Once he's gone, she asks Ophelia what they were discussing. Things are getting out of her control, and she must get back in the game. What were they discussing that almost unleashed her brother's fury? What kind of (unwitting) control does Ophelia have over him? As soon as she knows, she calms down. Information is the power she thrives on. Despite the transgendering, this is a performance/editing choice that is valid for Polonius. He too has a manipulative side, and playing it up highlights the foolishness of power for its own sake. That manipulation is also expressed in the way Fodor edits the film, with Hamlet's White Pawn card cut in when Polonia hears his name. Ophelia is nothing of the sort. She flashes to better times when they talk about Hamlet, brief moments that look quite innocent and even demure.
The party ends, people pass out, but the scene doesn't end there. We find the two sisters in a darkened room, some time later. Polonia speaks her order not to see Hamlet as she preps Ophelia's arm for a shot of heroin.
The way she controls Ophelia is no less disturbing than how she controls Laertes. As ever, the Ghost watches. This ties into the opening and Ophelia's overdose, and may mean he is visible to someone under the drug's influence, at death's door, or is Ophelia's hallucination (especially if we take the film as her last moments' vision).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Act I Scene 3 - Hamlet 2000

Ophelia is looking at a polaroid of Hamlet (in better days, apparently, when they were taking pictures of each other) when Laertes walks in. There is no goodbye here, only the warning to avoid Hamlet. It seems his only reason to be there. He is emotional, while Ophelia is impatient if rather silent with him. Her expression on the mention of her virginity is that of hurt outrage. This is a difficult point for more modern retellings (and the reason I don't think Romeo + Juliet works AT ALL): Today's attitudes do not put such a price on either virginity or "true love". In this urban modern world, at her age, Ophelia should already not be so "innocent", not with an older boyfriend in the picture. It is possible that she never had relations with Hamlet or anyone, mind you, but unlikely in the context of the film. If she isn't a maid, are her family members deluding themselves, preventing her from growing up in their own minds? Is the hurt outrage in part disbelief that her brother would take this view? This remains ambiguous at this point.

A word on "Polonius' house" - in actuality, a set of rooms inside the Elsinore building - because it is such a strange space. Austere and white, it offers various levels (at least three) of shelves filled with books. His children's rooms are part of this library, visually having them grow up oppressed by his "wisdom", much as a they submit to his advice in the play. We may or may not infer something of each character's place within the family from which level they are on. When we'll see Polonius in a second, he'll be on the top level, ruling over the family. Laertes is strangely at the bottom, but Ophelia is such a cause for concern, she may well be more important than he is in those terms. In any case, it puts Ophelia in between the two men, which is exactly right. On one of the walls is an odd assembly of praying figures(?) that lends interest to the shot, but remains mysterious.
Ophelia's first lines in this version are the "I shall the effect of this good lesson keep" speech, which substitutes "recks not his own rede" with "recks not his own creed" (as 1948's Hamlet did). This makes the line more accessible to modern audiences, but perhaps also widens the scope of who Laertes fails to listen to. His own rede is his own voice, but his own creed includes both Ophelia and Polonius.
Speaking of which, Polonius then enters from above, looks absent-mindedly at the picture of Hamlet and continues shouting out his blessing even as his son flees the room. He lets out a whimper, as if he really wants to talk to Ophelia about this, but needs to deal with his son first, before he leaves. Throughout the following exchange, there's a sense that Polonius remains distracted by that thought of Hamlet (he HAS seen something going on between them in the previous scene). It's a lovely comic, but true to life, performance from Bill Murray. Polonius is a meddler, and this is presented in the way he helps Laertes pack his bags. He doesn't trust his children to do well by themselves (and perhaps he's right, Laertes IS late after all). Ophelia, meanwhile, takes pictures from above.

When discussing Kline's version, I spoke at some length of the concept of a Polonius who doesn't really listen. In the wake of that discussion, I can't help but hear further irony in the line "Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice", just another example of the character's unselfconscious hypocrisy. The goodbye ends on an awkward hug, again complemented by Murray's comic timing.
"Reserve thy judgment", he has just said, but it looks like he's judging his son too sentimental with only a look (I couldn't quite capture it with my DVD software). Laertes gives Ophelia a hug too, and steals a small comb from her hair even as she doesn't quite respond to his affection. What could be Laertes' unnatural feelings towards his sister are explored here much as they are in his every mention of her hymen. As for her reaction, it differs from most performances by taking out Ophelia's own affection for her brother. But this Ophelia has a more modern reaction to denied love: Bitterness at being told what to do, but more than that, melancholy indicated by complete apathy and disaffection. She and Hamlet are more alike (and compatible?) in that sense. If he grieves for his father, she grieves for him.

The thought of Hamlet and Ophelia together must have eaten at Polonius for a good while, because we now cut to Scene 4 (Hamlet's meeting with the Ghost that night) before returning to the end of Scene 3. It is another day, she's listening to "movie phone" as part of her disaffection (on the phone, but not talking to anyone) and her shoelace is undone (she is distracted). Meddling Polonius, in the habit of fixing things for his children, sits her down and ties it for her.
The idea here is that she is a little girl and has been so sheltered that she really isn't very well equipped to deal with life. The bars on the windows are not lost on this viewer either. In telling her she can't see Hamlet anymore, Polonius is firm as a parent would be with a child, but seems meaner because he's really dealing with a young adult. This creates a cognitive dissonance that once again taps into "time is out of joint", with the characters' ages seemingly out of proportion with their roles.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Act I Scene 3 - Kline '90

At 38, Diane Venora is a bit old to play Ophelia (but perfect for Getrude in Hamlet 2000 at 48... why do so many Ophelias later return as Gertrudes?). I mention it because it has an impact on her performance. This Ophelia has a maturity that is at odds with the lines' naivety. Her family's interference thus seems to come more from the role of women in earlier cultures than of any wish to protect a young girl from harm. Other characters come off as condescending to her, rather than protective of her. As we come into Scene 3, she is reading one of Hamlet's notes, which she hides when Laertes comes in.
Its discover a few moments later will be the motivation for his warnings, removing the awkward fascination with her virginity. When Laertes does mention it, she stops his mouth, outraged that he would so inappropriately throw it into a conversation. From this reaction, we can believe in her virginity. She would seem to espouse puritanical ideals also carried by Hamlet's Wittenberg education. Her own warning not to heed his own words teases less here than in other performances. She has been insulted by his speech and keeps a sharp edge to her own, even if he smiles right through it. We get the feeling no one much listens to Ophelia.

She retrieves the note from Laertes and stuffs it in her busom just as Polonius walks in. As his father goes through his advice, Laertes is tensely patient with him, but it's Polonius' character that is revealed here. At one point, he stares into the distance and his dialogue becomes a monologue.
Josef Sommer plays Polonius as a man in love with his own words. He is entranced and chuckles at his own cleverness. It doesn't matter that his son scarcely needs this advice, his wisdom must be spoken for its own sake. And though he is later kind and benevolent towards his daughter, he doesn't really hear her when she speaks. His mind is taken up by platitudes he's read somewhere, or clever logic of his own. That mind cannot be changed because of vanity. How could he possibly be wrong? This is an attitude Polonius carries through the play, which makes Sommer's choices astute and appropriate.

Shakespeare critic Harold Bloom argues that Shakespeare's genius lies in his characters talking to themselves, HEARING themselves and changing through that act of hearing. I think this idea speaks to Polonius' foolishness. He is a fool in the play because though he talks a lot, he does not hear himself anymore than he hears others. Or else he would become aware of the irony of his comments and of his hypocrisy. "To thine own self be true" suddenly becomes an indictment of his own pig-headedness. Every good advice has its dark side, in this case, self-love.

Ophelia, for her part, tries to sell Hamlet's love to her father, in the most glowing of terms, but he'll have none of it. He seems to care what she thinks ("Do you believe his tenders...?"), but isn't really listening. After he leaves her, Hamlet is in her thoughts, as his image cross fades into hers.
In this version, it doesn't seem sincere when she agrees not to see Hamlet again. How does that affect our perception of Hamlet's madness scene in her boudoir? We'll have to see later.