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.

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