Dir: Feng Xiaogang. Chi-HK. 2006. 131mins.

Announced as China's opulent version ofShakespeare's Hamlet and originallyexpected to surface at Cannes, Feng Xiaogang's TheBanquet finally emerges three months later as an out of competition screeningat Venice. Though the plot is definitely indebted to the Bard - and to Macbeth as well as Hamlet - the film's look and feel is much closer to a tentative Hollywood blockbuster.

Staunchin its belief that bigger is better, TheBanquet piles up enough condiments for a dozen meals but never really triesto cook them into one satisfactory repast.Zhang Ziyi may be the top star in China's cinematic firmament and Yuen Wo-Ping has choreographed superlative martial arts extravanganzas on both sides of the Pacific: Tan Dun'sbrand of lush Westernised film music has done solidservice in earlier Oriental tales, while Feng himselfis one of the most successfully commercial directors in mainland China.

But the $15m The Banquet is a case of the sum beingvery much less than its very tasty parts: a convoluted tale of love andtreachery, desire and death, set in the 10th-century Beijing court. As such itplays out lamely, crossing a second-rate HouseOf Flying Daggers with the artificiality ofsomething like Kingdom Of Heaven.

A purely commercialconcoction which, one suspects, looked much better in production then it doeson screen, it is way too long for its own good, and may prove quick-lived atbox offices after initial attention. Opening in China on Sept 15, as well asother parts of Asia on the same month, it enjoyed good market buzz at Cannesand has sold to, among others, StudioCanal (France),Momentum Pictures (the UK and Spain), Eco Filmes(Portugal), Source Investment (Benelux, Scandinavia) and Korean Screen ( SouthKorea).

The tale sounds familiar.Empress Wan (Zhang) is secretly in love with the Emperor's son, Prince Wu Luan(Daniel Wu). A recluse, he is four years older then her and lives far away fromthe royal palace, his life dedicated to the study of music and dance.

When the Emperor is murderedby his ambitious brother, Li (Ge You), who covets thewife and the throne, the Empress chooses to accept the usurper's offer andbecome his spouse, not only to preserve her title but also to save the life of herbeloved prince. Little does she know that Li has already sent killers to doaway with his dreamy nephew.

But while Wu Luan is a poetand musician, he also knows more than a little about the art of survival andsoon comes to the palace, intent on revenge for his father's demise.

It is at this point that theplot thickens, for Qing (Zhou Yun),the daughter of a manipulative minister, is desperately in love with the princeand willing to sacrifice her life for him. Meanwhile Yin (Huang Xiaoming, her brother and one of the bravest warriors inthe Empire, is dedicated body and soul to his little sister.

All these characters, andseveral thousand more soldiers, bodyguards and courtiers, eventually gather inthe vast festive halls of the Imperial Palace, to celebrate thecrowning of the Empress and the grand finale of the piece.

There isn't much point goinginto the further intricacies of the story. Anyone who has read or seen even thesketchiest outline of Hamlet will befamiliar them, as they push The Banquet towards its climactic unraveling. Butsince the star of the show here is the Empress, and not the tenebrous Prince,there is no reason why Wan, first introduced as a much younger and sexierversion of Gertrude, should not acquire along the way some of the traitsassociated with Lady Macbeth.

Such changes could stillhave resulted in one of those satisfying, colourfullarger-than-life epics, boasting staggering costumes and gigantic sets.Thousands of stand-ins could have been supported by an army of technicalspecialists, ready to catapult them through the air, twist them on a penny orcut them into little pieces, with tons of red paint splurging over white silksor fresh snow for better effect.

And indeed, no effort isspared, with almost every frame in the film a gloriously decorativemasterpiece. Production design and camera work are no less than superlative andfitting for this type of production.

But where The Banquet finds itself ill-served iswhen it comes to the plotting, which is stodgily told and clumsily directed,inter-cut with expertly performed but by now predictable masses of martial artschoreography. That it is mostly shot in dark, burnished hues, particularlyduring the second half, doesn't help much either.

The music, ever presentthroughout, drowns out everything in massive sweeping chords, leading to afinal theme song whose scale would make even Celine Dion feel envious.

The cast, yoked to a complexplot which needs all the assistance it can get to make sense, contribute asbest they can with decorous stances.

Production company
Huay Brothers Picture Company

International sales
Media Asia (US/SE Asia/Japan)/Huayi Brothers (others)

Executive producers
Yuen Wo-Ping
Wang Zhonglei

Wang Jongzhun
John Chong

Sheng Heyu
Qiu Gangjian

Zhang Li

Lin Miaomiao

Production design
Tim Yip

Tan Dun

Main cast
Zhang Ziyi
Ge You
Daniel Wu
Zhou Xun
Huang Xiaoming
Ma Jingwu