With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Monday, February 25, 2008

ACF 079: "Legend of the Black Scorpion" Streets Tomorrow

Legend of the Black Scorpion will be available on DVD from Dragon Dynasty tomorrow, Tuesday, February 26, 2008. The film is director Feng Xiaogang's retelling and retooling of Shakespeare's Hamlet. This adaptation is set in 907 A.D. during a turbulent time in the Tang Dynasty. The Emperor has been killed by his brother, who becomes Emperor Li. This role is played by You Ge, best known for his comic roles, but here showing he's more than up to the task of taking on a very serious dramatic role.

Emperor Li caresses the neck of Empress Wan

Li is motivated at least as much by lust for the Emperor's young wife as by a desire for power. Empress Wan is played by Zhang Ziyi. To accommodate her age, the scenario was rewritten so that she and Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu, as the Hamlet figure) had planned to be married. The widowed, and now-dead, Emperor instead had taken her for his own wife, thereby making her the Prince's step-mother.

The film begins at a remote open outdoor theater (shot in the same bamboo forest as the one in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), where Prince Wu Luan has been immersed in music, theater and dance as a way of fleeing the court after his father married his beloved. Masked performers, seemingly out of a Greek tragedy or a Japanese Noh play, are cut down one by one by masked assassins sent by the new Emperor to kill the Prince. He manages to escape just when we think he's been done in.

The Empress and Prince Luan

The film then shifts largely to the palace, to which Luan returns. Here he deals with the conflict between his distaste for court intrigue and his obligation to avenge his murdered father. But this is not your standard Hamlet, and if anything the film is more about Empress Wan than it is the prince. She desires to rule the kingdom alongside Luan, but must craftily deal with the new emperor's fixation on her.

Empress Wan in the main hall, one of the film's many incredible sets

Feng wanted the film to have the feel of an opera, and the vast and opulent interiors of the palace certainly give it an operatic grandeur. So too do the costumes and the overall attention to detail, which is remarkable.

Legend of the Black Scorpion is a dark and bloody drama, while at the same time being a lush and scrumptious feast for the eyes. And the action sequences, which are interspersed throughout the narrative, are of the incredibly high caliber we've come to expect from Yuen Woo-ping. The man has an incredible imagination and command of what moves and wire work are just right for every situation

The film is getting the Two-Disc Ultimate Edition treatment from the Dragon Dynasty label. The first disc offers both the original Mandarin and an English-dubbed soundtrack. Another audio option is a feature length commentary by Bey Logan, an authority on Hong Kong cinema who has worked in the industry there.

Having seen the film at its New York premiere at the 2007 New York Asian Film Festival last summer, I chose to watch the DVD release with Logan's commentary. He's done a number of them for other Dragon Dynasty releases, but this was the first opportunity I've had to listen to a complete one, and it was terrific. The tone is conversational, not academic, and the man is incredibly knowledgeable. It's a perfect example of what a commentary should be and has made me eager to listen to his offerings on other Dragon Dynasty DVDs in my collection.

Disc Two has an interview with director Feng (in Mandarin with English subtitles) and another one with male lead Daniel Wu (in English). There are also two featurettes that include interviews with most of the principles and some behind the scenes, making-of footage. One thing that I was most impressed with was how genuine Ziyi Zhang comes across. She's so animated, spontaneous, and physically expressive. In these extras, you'll notice that the film is usually referred to as The Banquet, its original international English title.

Legend of the Black Scorpion gets an ACF rating of 3.5 out of 4 stars, highly recommended. I feel I should mention that when I first saw the film I though it was good and probably would have given it 3 stars. But on second viewing, I've been more impressed and hence the additional 1/2 star.

As for the DVD extras, they get a 4 star rating - outstanding. Dragon Dynasty has again put out a great package.

Links (all imdb):
Legend of the Black Scorpion (a.k.a. The Banquet)
Feng Xiaogang, director
Zhangi Ziyi, actress (Empress Wan)
Daniel Wu, actor (Prince Wu Luan, the Hamlet figure)
You Ge, actor (Emperor Li)
Xun Zhou, actress (Qing Nu, the Ophelia figure)
Li Zhang, cinematographer
Yuen Woo-ping, action choreographer
Tim Yip, art direction (he won the 2000 Oscar for Best Art-Direction-Set Decoration for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
Tan Dun, composer

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