"Legend of the Black Scorpion" | "Royal Deceit"


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(2006) Chinese movie, also known as "The Banquet" or "The Night Banquet" starring Ziyi Zhang ("Crouching Tiger"), You Ge, and Daniel Wu ("Into the Badlands").

I don't usually review movies on my blog, but this is an extremely interesting version of Hamlet, and worth mulling over. Many of the Hamlet elements are there: the prince who comes back to find his uncle has killed his father and seized the throne, a nod to the ghost, a nod to Ophelia and Polonius and Laertes, the play-within-a-play, a nod to being sent off to death, the poisoned cup, and final showdown in which almost everyone ends up dead. Lots of martial arts swordplay and gorgeous cinematography.

Then there are the innovations (this is the exciting part!). The knockout is the Empress Wan who is established in the opening narration as having been a young woman in love with Prince Wu Luan (Hamlet), until Wu Luan's father took her as a wife for himself. The uncle kills Wu Luan's father and inherits the Empress Wan, so that the "Gertrude" in this case is four years younger than "Hamlet," and is, in a sense, both lover and step-mother. Who needs an Oedipal complex? On top of this, the Empress Wan is a brilliantly enigmatic, tricky character--a survivor, and a Romantic--one has the sense she does not entirely know herself, and her actions are driven by conflicting motivations. She completely steals the show.

I was also very impressed by the handling of the Emperor Li (Claudius). He is controlled, brutal, and yet you can see he's utterly smitten by the foxy Empress Wan, and gradually over the course of the movie lets down his guard to her, only to be devastated by her betrayal. Much more human and heart-breaking than one usually sees a Claudius. He's also dangerous, established early on by his treatment of the Empress and dissenters in the court, which is important because so often Hamlet (in Hamlet) can come off as too comfortable, too secure, too in control, in which case the audience is left wondering why Hamlet doesn't just get a move on with things. By the middle of this movie, it looks nigh impossible for Prince Wu Luan to get anywhere close to the Emperor, let alone kill him, which ups the intensity of the drama immensely and adds an element of "How on earth is he going to do this??"

Add I should mention Xun Zhou ("Cloud Atlas") who plays Qing Nu, the Ophelia character, who formed an interesting love triangle with Wu Luan and the Empress. I wish I could see all Ophelias like this, but unfortunately, we are left with Shakespeare's flower-strewing neurotic.

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If you are interested in versions of Hamlet that shed light on Hamlet, I also recommend (1994) "Royal Deceit" with Gabriel Byrne, Helen Mirren, Christian Bale, and Kate Beckinsale. The attempt here was to go back to the original Danish source story for Hamlet, and the setting feels like Beowulf, but it is fascinating to compare--this is essentially what Hamlet would be if Hamlet were not philosophizing and overly burdened with conscience or thought, so essentially a straight revenge story. The Ophelia story line makes way more sense, the trip to England makes way more sense, and the ending satisfies the premise: Amled returns from exile, kills the bad king, marries the English princess he picked up, and lives happily ever after. Typical Hollywood revenge/action blockbuster for Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson or Liam Neeson. So what's interesting is how flat that feels. By omission, you realize how complex a character Hamlet is, how complex Shakespeare has made what started as a straight "kill the bad guy" revenge story.