The test of any great story is its adaptability - that is, how readily another individual or culture can take the basic tenets and make it their own. Myths and legends are a primary source of such interchangeable material, but there have been many ‘modern’ narratives that have found such universality. Though many may argue that he merely channeled the basic stories of the past, William Shakespeare created several plays that have become the standard bearer for dozens of updates and revisions. His most heralded work remains Hamlet, considered a true test of any actor’s mantle. Interestingly enough, it forms the basis for the luxurious martial arts spectacle The Legend of the Black Scorpion. But instead of focusing on the famous melancholy Dane, we get a decidedly female look at the complicated court politics.
This is a movie where Gertrude - in this case, Empress Wan (played by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Ziyi Zhang) - is the main focus. We have our Hamlet in the tormented Prince turned tortured artist Wu Lan (a wonderful Daniel Wu) and a backstabbing, scheming Uncle (You Ge) who may have murdered his own brother for the throne. Toss in the unrequited love of Qing Nu (a heartbreaking Xun Zhou) daughter of the crown’s chief advisor, her brother (Xiaoming Huang) exiled to a distant part of the Empire, and a defiant official who pays for his consternation with his life, and you’ve got the Bard’s basics clearly in place. But director Feng Xiaogang isn’t interested in just retelling the well honed saga. Instead, he adds subtle subtext about human nature, the need for individual facades (or masks), and the ruthless nature of power - both personal and political.
Together they combine to bring new life to a classic. The Legend of the Black Scorpion
(on DVD as part of the Weinstein Company and Genius Products excellent Dragon Dynasty Collection), for all its Old Vic allusions, is purely Chinese in its execution. This is a film that flaunts massive, impressive sets, long, luxuriant takes, performances pitched somewhere between dour and delirious, and enough Yuen Wo-ping wire fu to soften even the most hardened of martial arts hearts. Thanks to the brilliant art direction, the use of tone and mood, the emphasis on interpersonal passions and pride, as well as the incomparable scope of events, we get a story that soars well above the typical elements. Instead, Xiaogang gives us tragedy as a type of cosmic destiny, a means of making the smallest act seem like the most significant and symbolic step ever taken by a human being.
The Legend of the Black Scorpion is indeed as eye opening as it is thought provoking. From the opening moments when we meet Wu Lan in his beautiful bamboo school, to the last act confrontation at the world’s most sumptuous banquet, Timmy Yip’s stunning designs, loaded with exotic and ephemeral touches, take us back in time and literally out of this world. While most period pieces strive for some semblance of era-appropriate realism, only the warrior uniforms here recall a feudal state. The rest of Black Scorpion shudders like an art gallery come to life, moments so magnificent and masterful that you wonder how they were ever achieved. As part of the new two disc DVD package, we learn a great deal about the production, how CGI and other optical tricks were used to realize some very ambitious aims. It highlights the big budget foundation of this fascinating film.
Yet pretty pictures are nothing without actors and performances to populate them. And in the casting of Black Scorpion, Xiaogang has found a fascinating company indeed. For all her plaintive, porcelain beauty, lead actress Zhang makes a devastating villainess. Perhaps because she is so regal in her demeanor she comes across as even more cruel and heartless. At the other end of the spectrum, no Western actor can out melancholy Wu when it comes to playing our notoriously depressed lead. Instead of being inactive or unable to defend himself, the Prince in this version of the story stands for his principles and fights when confronted. It is only when he sits with the Empress or his love Qing that his true sadness comes forth. Wu is a wonderful martial artist, a man who typically isn’t given much of a chance to highlight his kung fu. Here, he gets a pair of wonderful swordplay scenes, and he really excels in both.
As for his handling of the material overall, Xiaogang can be accused of going slo-mo more than necessary. During the opening attack at Wu Lan’s school, there is a great deal of undercranked blood spray. Indeed, fans of such formal epics may be put off by the amount of gore here. Bodies are bisected with regularity, and one character is beaten to death in a gauntlet so cruel it’s almost impossible to watch. Yet between all the garroting and wound gushing, suicides and mass slaughter, it’s the lesser intrigues that carry this film. And it is here where this director truly shines. The scenes between characters sizzle with unspoken fervor, and the contrasts between close-ups and massive establishing shots never let us forget the “cogs in a bigger machine” theme. In fact, it’s clear that Xiaogang used Hamlet for more than a fictional foundation. Something about the story truly resonated with him.
It’s a fact confirmed by ever-present commentator Bey Logan as part of Black Scorpion‘s excellent digital overview. Spending most of his time comparing and contrasting this version of the Bard with the original, there is a lot of insight in the alternate narrative track. From moments he feels surpasses the classic to times when traditional Hong Kong filmmaking took over, Logan lets us in on all aspects of the production. Perhaps the most engaging material offered centers on the missing scenes - intriguing sequences scripted but never filmed. We also learn who killed Wu Lan’s father, and why such a conclusion was cut out of the film. Along with the standard Dragon Dynasty interviews and featurettes (Xiaogang and Wu get the Q&A treatment, while there are two Making-of documentaries), we truly begin to understand the positives - and potential negatives - of adapting a very famous tale.
Yet it’s that very alteration that stands as The Legend of the Black Scorpion‘s biggest accomplishment. While it seems next to impossible to take Hamlet and make it your own, the creative company behind this film has done just that. There is just enough Shakespeare here to keep purists from crying foul. Yet there is also enough originality and outright vision to keep things looking and feeling wholly unique. Some may complain over the lack of action (there are probably four or five major martial arts sequences in a 140 minute movie), and the open-ended conclusion could leave audiences cold, but make no mistake about it - The Legend of the Black Scorpion is as opulent and overpowering as any version of the famous play you’ve ever seen. It stands as a true work of art.