Thursday, November 30, 2006


Not to be confused with The King and the Clown, The Banquet is a quite different Asian take on the Bard's Hamlet which happens to also feature a fair number of masks. The style here however is an art-wuxia film in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film feels like Feng Xiaogang, one of the bigger directors in mainland China, felt the need to one-up the other two big mainland Chinese directors: Zhang Yimou who has Hero and House of Flying Daggers already under his belt with Curse of the Golden Flower on the way and Chen Kaige who made The Promise last year. All of these films are heavy on the melodrama and rich in colour palette and nearly all of them (including The Banquet) the young star global superstar Zhang Ziyi.

The Banquet throws the play into the blender with a fair number of twists and turns to keep those familiar with the play on their toes. For me, the familiar and the completely unexpected enhanced the tension of the film. First off, everything is from 'Gertrude's' (Wan, Zhang Ziyi) point of view. Second, 'Hamlet' (Wu Luan) and Wan are not son and mother, but rather the same age, and potential lovers. However the Emperor, Wu Luan's father claims her as his bride sending Wu Luan into self-imposed exile. Meanwhile the Emperor's Brother murders the monarch and the marries Empress Wan. Wu Luan comes out of exile at the news of his fathers murder from Wu Luan's current lover, one of the Empress's ladies-in-waiting. A night banquet and elaborate players show culminate the tale of revenge and unfulfilled love in some unexpected ways.

Folks may be getting fatigued with both pretty arty martial arts films and various offbeat takes on Hamlet; but what makes The Banquet stand out is the blend of dance-based martial arts and exceptionally bloodsoaked fighting scenes designed no doubt to play to the 'yard' (the pit where ruffians took in the show in old Elizabethan theatre). Combine that with a sumptuous, vaguely melancholic eroticism and perhaps Feng Xioagang has an interesting grasp of what makes Shakespeare timeless. The only thing missing is the bawdy humour and insight to what makes humans tick. Pshaw, I say!

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Hard Candy is an overlooked thriller which skirts the line between a mainstream thriller and an exploitation film. It is slick and thoroughly gripping from a combination of rich dialogue and good acting (from future A-lister Patrick Wilson (see also Little Children) and up and coming Canadian young actress Ellen Page).

The film plays out the story of a young girl lured by an internet stalker via a chatroom. While this sounds like a melodramatic movie of the week, Hard Candy is nothing of the sort. To avoid heading into spoiler territory, I'll describe the experience of watching the film rather than details of the film itself. Music video director David Slade structures things first to lull the observative viewer along a familiar path (although this film does not seem to have many obvious precedents other than Roman Polanski's Death and the Maiden or perhaps the overlooked Kiefer Sutherland and Reese Witherspoon starring contemporary take on Little Red Riding Hood, Freeway).

This lead-on is done both narratively as well as empathically. Over the course of the drama, viewer loyalty shifts more than once. Suspension of disbelief may be required upon reflection. But during the film the claustrophobic cinematography and compelling interplay between the leads keep things very tightly wound. It is the winding of both expecations and tension that is the chief pleasure of the film. Even if in the end of the experience a moral clense may be required. Hard Candy poses to the question of what is more terrifying, being victimized by someone in the grips of a need which is objectionable to society, or being helpless to the actions of someone who is both righteous and naïve in equal measure.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


This weeks film is all about entertainment. Comedy. Drama. Tragedy. The King and the Clown is a South Korean riff on William Shakespeare's Hamlet, but only in the loosest of fashion. It is a fusion of bold storytelling, Korean history and traditional theatre wrapped in a taboo busting modern package which captures the essence of the dangerous thrill (and resulting joy) of performing art.

The story follows two actors who leave their tight-rope/comedy troupe because the leader of their band is more interested in selling the younger of the two, a fellow so smooth-skinned and effeminate as to be quite easily mistaken for the opposite gender, to rich noblemen for sexual favours. They make their way to Seoul to start their own troupe, and make a name for themselves by turning the gossip of the King and his ex-prostitute consort into satire of the monarchy. This leads to notice by a key minister of the King and gets the players caught up in the in political (and sexual) intrigues of one of Korea's long lasting Joseon Dynasty.

The tightrope is a fitting visual metaphor seen constantly in the movie as the players, as they do in the 'play within the play' in Hamlet, wield power of a sort by confronting the court with things that no member of the aristocracy or monarchy could say outright. The King and the Clown spends a fair bit of time going into the consequences on giving the 'common people' so much power without the protections of station. They suffer for that power, and the effect of their art. When given the choice however, each player indicates that they would do it all again for the euphoria of performing.

If this movie were made in English and a Hollywood studio film (not that I'm suggesting a remake, the film is universal in its appeal, but Korean at its core) it would likely get an Academy Award nomination for best picture. In fact The King and the Clown has been submitted for the Best Foreign Language Award; and up until recently it was the highest grossing domestic film in South Korea. This is even more impressive in that the director and principle actors were basically unknowns when the film was released.