HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Dragon Dynasty continues to give Chinese action cinema the deluxe treatment with LEGEND OF THE BLACK SCORPION, aka YE YAN (2006), director Xiaogang Feng's lavish, big-budget ($100M) costume epic about doomed love and betrayal in ancient China.

It's the year 907 A.D., and after the Tang Dynasty falls into ruin, the Imperial family is beset with treachery and an inner struggle for power. The crown prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) is heartbroken when the love of his life, Wan (Ziyi Zhang), is betrothed to his father the Emperor. He retreats into the country to study music and the arts, and during that time his father is murdered by his uncle, Li (You Ge), who usurps the throne and marries Wan. After surviving an assassination attempt by Emperor Li's soldiers, Wu Luan returns to the palace to reclaim his beloved Wan (now his step-mother) and avenge his father's death.

The script by Gangjian Qiu is said to be loosely based on Shakespeare's "Hamlet", although I can't attest to that since I haven't read any of the Bard's work since high school. Mainly this tragic love story is a stunningly-mounted action-drama which may remind you of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, especially when people defy the laws of gravity and start flying around like pixies during battle.

The wirework here is on the fantasy level, which sometimes gives the film a fairytale element that is at odds with the otherwise realistic tone but also contributes to the visual poetry that suffuses just about every shot. Armored assassins emerge from the treetops like nightmare phantoms; warriors sweep and swirl around each other in a ballet of violence. There's a synchonized sword dance between Prince Wu Luan and Empress Wan after their reunion that is mesmerizing.

This is one beautiful movie. The huge palace sets are astounding feats of production design matched by the ornate costumes and gorgeous cinematography. Outdoor locations are beautiful as well, especially the forest setting where the initial attempt on Wu Luan's life takes place. Some obvious CGI creeps in sporadically, but for the most part we're seeing the real thing. Xiaogang Feng displays a genuine talent for beautiful compositions and sweeping camerawork during the more operatic passages while directing the more intimate close-up action with equal style, all of which is augmented by a beautiful score from Oscar-winner Tan Dun. From beginning to end, this film is a visual feast.

Don't expect a breakneck pace or a rollercoaster ride, though--the story unfolds at an extremely stately pace, with much of the drama revolving around the complicated personal and political intrigues within the palace. There's something very compelling about situations in which vain, power-intoxicated royals such as the vile Emperor Li are worshipped as human gods whose every whim can change destinies and destroy lives, yet are vulnerable to their own human weaknesses. Li himself can casually order the executions of entire clans, but can't command the love of his own wife, with whom he's obsessed. And lesser humans such as the noble General Yin (Xiaoming Huang) must continually defer to such unworthy demigods while secretly plotting against them.

Wan succumbs to this godlike power and we're never sure whether she desires a return to her life with Wu Luan or prefers to remain the royal consort, perhaps with ambitions beyond even that--her true motives and feelings are mysterious. Personally, I was hoping that Wu Luan would eventually hook up instead with Wan's sweet, lovely maidservant Quin (Xun Zhou), who loves him from afar. But things have a way of tragically not working out the way you'd like them to in this movie. While story begins to lag in the final half, the climactic banquet sequence, in which all secrets are revealed and certain major characters bite the big one, makes up for it--although somehow I just didn't find it nearly as moving as I'd expected. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON had me in tears at the end, while this one left me dry-eyed.

Okay, enough with the drama stuff--what's the action like? Well, if you loved the battle between Beatrix and the Crazy 88s in KILL BILL, then the fight scenes here, which were also choreographed by the legendary Woo-ping Yuen, should get your blood racing. Prince Wu Luan is the greatest swordsman in China and often has to prove it against scores of armored attackers in furious, well shot and edited sequences that are done with lots of style and imagination. The forest battle early in the film is a highlight, as are a couple of intense scenes between Wu Luan and the Emperor's guards inside the palace.

Such thrilling action sequences are few in this movie but are worth the wait, although this kind of stuff is no longer as startling and exotic as it used to be. Again, however, you have to be open to a lot of fantasy wirework, as the emphasis isn't on realism--Xiaogang Feng is interested mainly in exploring the visual beauty of heroism and the kinetic poetry of violence, and in that he and Woo-ping Yuen have succeeded admirably.

The DVD image is widescreen and anamorphically enhanced and looks awesome, with solid Dolby Digital sound. Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan is on hand once again to supply a well-informed commentary. The second disc includes interviews with director Feng Xiao-Gang and star Daniel Wu, along with two featurettes, "The Making Of Legend Of The Black Scorpion" and "A Dynasty Uncovered: Behind The Scenes On Legend Of The Black Scorpion", plus trailers. The extras are informative but lean a bit toward the dull side, consisting mainly of the director, stars, and crewmembers talking about each other.

My only other Dragon Dynasty experience so far has been the intense KILL ZONE (SPL), but I'd love to see more. As with that release, this is a meticulously-crafted DVD presentation that immerses the viewer in the film. LEGEND OF THE BLACK SCORPION is one of the most sumptuous and visually opulent historical epics I've seen in years, with a story of tragic love and political intrigue that kept me pretty interested between bursts of explosive action.


1 comment:

Joseph Nobles said...

Yes, that's the basic setup of Hamlet, although the combination of Gertrude/Ophelia into the Empress sounds pretty cool. It gives Hamlet's hesitation a little more motivation by letting his father steal his love and then die. Why should Wu Luan avenge his father's death under those circumstances? A nice twist on the Hamlet dilemma.