“Something is rotten in the state of…” China? Over the years, the timeless plays of William Shakespeare have been transferred to the screen in countless adaptations both classical and radical from Akira Kurosawa’s versions of Macbeth (Throne of Blood) and King Lear (Ran) to Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s Oscar winning interpretation of Romeo and Juliet (West Side Story). The overwhelming influence of the Bard’s comedies and tragedies on not only cinema but popular culture in general is incalculable as his lines echo in the mouths of Quentin Tarantino characters, themes dance throughout our big budget period epics and there have been so many incarnations of legendary villains and heroes such as Lady Macbeth, Iago, and Hamlet that it could cause a graduate student meltdown.
And perhaps even more remarkably every once in awhile a filmmaker is bold enough to admit right from the start that they’re interpreting not just any Shakespeare play but his greatest tragedy Hamlet and bolder still is when the filmmaker’s last name isn’t Branagh. In 1996, Kenneth Branagh, my favorite Shakespearean professor, released what would become to academics the ultimate version of Hamlet in his dazzling masterwork clocking in at 242 riveting minutes that never cease to amaze audiences so much that some film critics have even named it one of the greatest achievements in filmmaking of the entire 1990’s. Needless to say, following in Branagh’s footsteps where Hamlet is concerned took considerable moxie and it was a move best made by a filmmaker willing to take a large departure from the text to offer audiences something remarkably different.
With this in mind, I transport you dear readers to China where master martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix, Kill Bill) teamed up with director Xiaogang Feng for their very own adaptation of the Danish prince’s quest for revenge, named the Legend of the Black Scorpion. While admittedly it takes awhile to gain our interest as it annoyingly begins to go into exposition twice orally instead of illustrating things visually, we become quickly aware of the Shakespearean similarities only moments into this visually spectacular award winning film festival favorite, which features the largest set ever constructed in China (IMDb) and was chosen as the official Hong Kong entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Academy Awards.
Obviously inspired by Hamlet, although some critics such as Derek Elley of Variety also drew comparisons to Macbeth, Feng’s film is set during the tumultuous crumbling of the Tang Dynasty in 907 AD as we’re introduced to the film’s version of Hamlet, named Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) in an embarrassingly earnest and awkward opening ballad that’s both as reminiscent and effective of Woody Allen’s usage of a Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite. Lovesick and desperately heartbroken, Wu Luan has retreated to study the arts including his love for singing and dancing while still upset that his teacher and emperor father had married his classmate and sweetheart Wan (Memoirs of a Geisha star Ziyi Zhang). When he learns that his father has been killed, all hands seem to point to his power hungry, lustful Uncle Li (You Ge) who soon enough confirms that suspicion by ordering a band of soldiers to execute Wu Luan and planning to first bed and then wed Empress Wan (Ziyi Zhang) to rule by his side. After he predictably escapes the deadly attack, Wu Luan returns to the palace where he’s torn between his affection for his sensuous stepmother who’s even younger than he is, his devoted betrothed the Ophelia like Qing Nu (Xun Zhou) and of course, exact lethal revenge on his murderous uncle, the Emperor Li.
Erroneously advertised as an action picture especially given the martial arts friendly name change from The Banquet as well as Woo-ping’s involvement which finds his jaw-dropping talent given very little opportunity to shine, this gorgeously photographed tragedy shot by award winning cinematographer Li Zhang never manages to draw us in on a level that goes beyond sheer aesthetic appreciation. Partially due to the otherwise excellent Ziyi Zhang who’s far too young for the role that was originally slated for Gong Li or Maggie Cheung (IMDb), even with the part rewritten expressly with this age change in mind, but it’s greatest tragedy isn’t in the film’s scope or in tackling source material from the daunting Shakespeare but in slowing it all to a scorpion’s pace where at roughly half the length of Branagh’s Hamlet, it still feels a good 30 minutes too long. While the Bard’s brainiacs are sure to check it out regardless, honestly it’s time well spent for artists who will undoubtedly find themselves inspired less by the forced, clunky conversation that no doubt suffers in translation and more by the film’s visual poetry in terms of the production design and costuming (both courtesy of Oscar winner Timmy Yip) that’s worthy of Shakespeare himself.