It's an oriental kung fu Hamlet.
Everyone's been saying it's loosely based on Shakespeare's tragedy, and to some, the movie's indeed a tragedy with its slowness in pace and lack of action, but I'd like to see it as because of its heavy reference to Hamlet (the poisoned quill, and many other plot points and scenes), it sort of created a crutch on which to lean the movie upon, hence the sense of familiarity to some, therefore having the source serving as a double edged sword - the movie beholden to it and eventually ending it on a weak note.
Having inherited the creative team of Yuen Wo Ping (action choreography), Tan Dun (Music), Tim Yip (Art Direction), and the starlet in Ziyi Zhang (wonder why the westernized juxtaposition of her name) does not automatically replicate the success of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon that easily. It's the X-factor and the blending of elements of novelty in CTHD that made it a huge success, and blindly following the predetermined formula is akin to hammering a square peg into a round hole.
While the art direction is lush and everything looking adequately regal, somehow Tan Dun's music seemed to be muted throughout the movie, only exhibiting sporadic brilliance to drum up scenes with the soundtrack, or the hauntingly beautiful theme song. The major disappointment however, will be in the fighting scenes. Here, martial arts both function as a contrast to the much muted artsy style of the Hamlet here, Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu), highlighting the difference in power between the pen and the sword, as well as functioning as foreplay. I thought with the gratuitous fake blood spewing across the screen, it was kind of a homage to 70s Shaw Bros martial arts classics, and a nod to director Chang Cheh, the king of ketchup blood. The initial big sequenced battle scene might have whet appetites, but sadly subsequent battles do not match up, with its repetitive running up walls or in mid air, as if Yuen had run out of tricks in the wire-work manual, having at one point seemed to copy Tsui Hark's Dao (1995). There's one moment of innovation though in a scene of punishment not seen (at least to me) before.
But not that I'm complaining. If this martial arts in this movie is viewed without comparisons to other more recent fantasy martial arts movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, it is still enjoyable and beautifully choreographed, and surpasses The Promise by a huge mile. Just that it lacked a fresh look in battles, and the unimaginative costuming of the Imperial Guards didn't help, looking too close like distant cousins of Lord of the Ring's Nazguls / Ringwraiths / Black Riders.
Desire as a theme runs through the movie very strongly, the desire for love, endless power and pure, unadulterated revenge. Very briefly, the story by now will be fairly obvious with Emperor Li (Ge You) usurping the throne from his brother, and coverts his wife Empress Wan as his own, who at one point in time was Prince Wu Luan's old flame. The Prince here is a fellow in love with the arts and bent on avenging his father, and who is the subject of unrequited love by the daughter of a minister - Qing Nu (Zhou Xun).
It's all about the wearing of masks and the building of facades, of hiding true intentions to achieve personal objectives. The contrast between the two men in the Emperor and the Prince is looked into, their love lives examined - one who uses power to obtain love, while the other's fortune to be loved brought him unimaginable influence.
Despite its references to Hamlet, the focus of the movie here seemed to be Ziyi Zhang's Empress Wan, as she plots and schemes, leaving you perplexed as to whether to sympathize and pity her, or applaud her attempts at exacting her own brand of justice. Acting all round is nothing to rave about, and though Ge You's performance seemed the better of the lot, his measured, subtle ways as the Emperor comes off rather weakly as a man capable of scheming to get to where he is. Somehow, I thought that Hamlet allowed the acting to take a foot off the pedal as audiences would already put in place perceptions and direct translations of character for character.
All said, The Banquet is still a reasonably competent foray into the martial arts genre for director Feng Xiaogang, and if he were to put another movie from the genre out, I'll sure be there to watch it. Now to anticipate Zhang Yimou's next contribution to the genre.