‘Legend of the Black Scorpion’: Love, Lust, Power and Desire

[10 November 2010]

By Brent McKnight

Note: This review contains a spoiler.

Legend of the Black Scorpion is a loose retelling of Hamlet, superimposed on feudal China. The empire is in chaos. After his father, the Emperor, marries Wan (Ziyi Zhang), the woman he was supposed to marry, Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) quits the life of the court and instead studies singing and dancing at an isolated retreat the woods. The Emperor’s brother, Li (Ge You), murders the Emperor and usurps the thrown, himself marrying Wan, making her the Empress twice over. Li sends assassins after Wu Luan, and when they fail, the Crown Prince returns to the court, waffling back and forth all the while between searching for vengeance and forgiveness.

The entire story is the tug between love, lust, power, and desire. Wan is torn between her feelings for Wu Luan and her thirst for authority. Wu Luan is both a poet as well as a warrior, attempting to distance himself from violence and lead a monastic life, but is continually drawn into conflict by those around him.  Saturated in melancholy, he is caught between two women, between two lives, enticed by both, but choosing neither.  Instead of navigating the treacherous political waters of the court, he passively drifts, at the mercy of the prevailing tides, and his inactivity causes nothing but damage and hurt.

Legend of the Black Scorpion has everything you could want out of a tragic, wuxia epic. The story is fraught with intrigue and betrayal. Elaborate sets mesh with stunning cinematography and a haunting score by Academy Award-winner Tan Dun. Legendary fight coordinator, Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix, Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is at the top of his game here.  Never one to do the same thing in multiple films, he creates intricate, seductive ballets of violence that have as much in common with dance as with combat.

Darker than many wuxia films, Legend of the Black Scorpion, also known as The Banquet, bears comparisons to earlier films like Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and House of Flying Daggers. It’s as good as any of those films, maybe better, and takes a unique approach to the genre.  Unlike many martial arts movies, the hero is not necessarily the baddest fighter, and while it may surprise you, SMALL SPOILER, it doesn’t end with an epic, everything-on-the-line battle. Ultimately, the film is stronger for these decisions.

The Blu-ray comes stacked. In addition to presenting the true beauty of the film, there is an extensive, in-depth interview with director Feng Xiaogang that is over 20-minutes long, and another, of similar length, with leading man Daniel Wu. Born and raised in the US, but working largely in Hong Kong, Wu has a distinct perspective. These interviews, along with a behind the scenes feature, spend a lot of time talking about the production, which is notable for building the largest sets ever for a Chinese film. Despite having a multitude of shots that look like they must have been digitally enhanced, there are only a few that are, all of them exteriors. They built a scale representation of a Tang Dynasty palace interior inside a massive, 200-meter long airplane hanger, creating a scope beyond that of most films.

The most interesting bonus feature is a commentary track with Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan. He has an intimate knowledge of this particular film, and Asian film in general, but he’s also an outsider, with an outsider’s perspective on the entire thing. Throughout he provides notes on production, as well as historical context, in both the larger sense of Chinese history and how Legend of the Black Scorpion fits into the world of Chinese cinema.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/133203-legend-of-the-black-scorpion/