If Hong Kong's early 90s action flicks were dominated by flashy, speed-driven wire-fu, the early 00s introduced a more refined vision of Chinese martial arts. Every consecutive year they announced a slew of films that promised to be bigger and better than the previous ones, but very few actually succeeded. Until Xiaogang Feng took a stab and raised the bar to a level that none of its peers would ever dream to match. To date, The Banquet [Ye Yan] is still the finest film the genre brought forward.
Even though Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon probably deserves most credit for launching this particular sub-genre across the world, it wasn't until Yimou Zhang made Hero that I started to take notice. The combination of hyper-stylized action sequences with superbly rich and lush settings was something quite novel at the time and people were obviously loving it. Others jumped onto the bandwagon, but no-one (not even Yimou himself) was quite able to match the success of Hero.
When Feng made The Banquet international interest had already dwindled, which sadly hampered the global success of the film. But that's not the only thing that stood in the way of garnering wide recognition. A small word of warning is needed when recommending The Banquet, as it is not a true action film. Many people often refer to the action sequences in this type of film as ballet-like, The Banquet actually treats them (quite literally) as dances. It makes for some extremely refined fight sequences, but it does take away from the action itself.
The Banquet is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Ibsen's Ghosts, but since I'm not familiar with either of them I can't really judge how close Feng stayed to the source material. The story is a rather compact and highly theatrical throne room drama, where deceit, betrayal and romance all end up in an accelerating spiral towards a tragic ending. Nothing out of the ordinary I guess, just don't expect anything too epic as the film's main focus is mostly confined to one single palace and its internal affairs.
The first time I watched The Banquet the visuals blew me out of my chair. Having watched it again just now, I can safely say that time left the initial wonder intact. There is little CG involved, and the little there is only has a very small effect on the film's overall visual look (apart from some CG blood everything looked like old-fashioned wire-fu to me). The film's settings are beautiful beyond description, from the scenery to the interior decorations and the costumes of the actors. The camera work is stylish and controlled, the slow-motion sequences some of the most impressive I've ever seen. There is not a single scene or even shot in the film that doesn't know to wow.
The soundtrack is a bit more traditional in nature, even incorporating some Western influences. But ultimately it goes well with the tragedy happening on screen. It gives the scenes a certain weight and accentuates the tragic moments without overstating them. There is plenty of melodrama present and getting that across with the right amount of pathos can be a little tricky at times, but Feng steers the soundtrack pretty well, avoiding some nasty pitfalls in the process and even scoring a few points along the way.
As for the actors, Daniel Wu (the main character) is probably the weakest link. He isn't even half-bad though, it's just that the rest of the cast easily outclasses him. Ge You is superb as the back-stabbing brother-in-law/emperor, Ziyi Zhang and Xun Zhou take proper care of the two female leads. This trio of actors is ideal to take on the more dramatic scenes in the film. There is also an extra saving grace for Wu, which is the fact that in many scenes he is required to act with a mask on, effectively hiding some of his acting imperfections.
The Banquet arguably contains some of my favorite fighting sequences, but comparing them to more steroid-driven action sequences is pretty much impossible. There's no way that you can put Tony Jaa's work next to Woo-ping Yuen's ultra-stylized fight-dances and pick a winner. The Banquet does offer some of the most gorgeously shot wire-fu sequences in the history of martial arts cinema though and compared to its direct peers I can't see any film that would hope to match Feng's masterpiece.
If you can stomach the classic tragedy, a world of unmatched cinematographic beauty opens itself and provides one of the most stunningly beautiful action films ever released. Just don't sit down hoping to be dazzled by a continuous stream of fighting sequences, there is quite a lot of dialogue here and a strong focus on the dramatic events that drive the four main characters. That said, The Banquet is by far my favorite of all the wuxia films out there, even leaving Yimou's Hero to bite the dust.