Shakespeare’s Hamlet is transported back 2,000 years to the opulent surroundings of ancient China, where trouble is brewing in the imperial court. The Crown Prince Wuluan (Daniel Wu) is in exile following the marriage of his father to his lover, Wan (Zhang Ziyi). But when his father is murdered by his uncle, he returns to the Forbidden City to put things right.
While it goes without saying that many of Shakespeaere’s tales are timeless, Hamlet works exceptionally well against the backdrop of Imperial majesty, in the tense atmosphere of a royal court fuelled by intrigue.
There are several modifications to the plot which serve to make it more cinematic, but perhaps the most welcome change is to turn the passive queen of the play into a Cleopatra-esque survivalist at the very core of the story, allowing the legendary Zhang Ziyi to shine. Her role as love interest to Wuluan adds an interesting new dimension thanks to the thoroughly believable notion that any man would crumble at her feet.
This, the selfishness of Wuluan, and the devotion of Qing (Xun Zhou in the Ophelia role) serve to give the film more moral ambiguity. This is emphasised through the motif of the mask, both in Wuluan’s plays and the Emperor’s ceremonial armour.
The stunning cinematography and use of colour rivals Hero, with the sumptuous surroundings providing an unending visual feast. Rich costumes add to the beauty while blood-splattered linen emphasises its brutality. While billed as a martial arts film, featuring graceful slow-motion choreography throughout, it would work well even without the martial arts, which don’t feel essential to the plot. This is a drama first and a martial arts movie second.
Less good is the soundtrack. Strong in the film’s second half, when it adopts a more Chinese flavour, with tension-inducing drumming and violins taking the melody, the film’s first half is weighed down by a dreary piano score which sounds like it’s from a much cheaper film. Slightly ironically, we watched the film in preparation for seeing composer Dun Tan conducting music from this, Hero and House of Flying Daggers this week. I’m just hoping he focuses on music from the second half.
And if you’re not in the mood for blood-splattering and subtitles, why not check out the other great screen adaptation of Hamlet: that of the Cookie Monster in the welcome return of Monsterpiece Theater to Screen Goblin.