From the writer/director of the excellent A World Without Thieves, Feng Xiaogang, comes this latest entry in the seemingly endless line of period costume action/drama/epics, Legend Of The Black Scorpion, also known as The Banquet. Set in the 907 AD where the Tang Dynasty is on its last legs, the film follows a prince named Wu Luan (Daniel Wu) who falls in love with a woman named Little Wan (Ziyi Zhang) who, unfortunately for him, winds up marrying his father, the Emperor. Broken hearted and unsure of himself, Wu Luan goes into a self imposed exile where he opts to spend all of his time studying art and music. That all changes when he learns that his uncle, Li (You Ge), has murdered his father and usurped not only the throne and title of Emperor but Wan as well. With Wu Luan the true heir to the throne, he soon finds that his uncle has sent out some assassins to murder him as well and eliminate the threat he will inevitably pose to his rule.
Things change when Wu Luan goes to court and the emperor basically has him kicked out of the country. Not surprisingly, however, Wu Luan returns on one hundredth day of the emperor's rule where he's hosting a massive banquet to celebrate - and Wu Luan isn't at all pleased with way that he's been treated.
Essentially a Chinese version of Hamlet, Legend Of The Black Scorpion is ripe with emotion, betrayal, skullduggery, and impressively choreographed martial arts duels set against a beautiful series of sets and adorned in some of the most beautiful costumes you're likely to see anytime soon. On a visual level, the film is essentially flawless, its use of color frequently amazing and its cinematography consistently picture perfect. The action scenes are staged (by the seemingly omnipresent Yuen Wo Ping) very nicely and have all the sense of epic excitement that you could want, showing the audience all the glory and horror of combat with style and grace which makes for an interesting series of contrasts.
The performances are generally quite strong here. Daniel Wu is good as the noble Wu Luan, a conflicted young man given the short end of the stick here. His interactions with Ziyi Zhang, a remarkably beautiful actress whose good looks are thankfully matched quite evenly by her acting ability, are the backbone of the picture and the complications that occur in regards to their relationship, self inflicted or otherwise, keep the plot interesting and at times fairly suspenseful. Throw in a great and wonderfully sinister turn from You Ge as the conniving and power hungry uncle and you're left with a capable cast who all do fine work here.
There are, in this film as there are in many Chinese period action films coming out of the country over the last ten years, moments where the melodrama does get to be a bit much, but Feng Xiaogang generally handles this material will as his past filmography will attest. That said, you can pick holes in the plot and in the motivations of various characters as the movie plays out - like most love stories (and that is what this film is at its core), characters are motivated more by emotion than by logic - but it's best to let the film play out and to just soak it all in. It's such a beautiful looking picture that you can't help but let yourself get swept up in it all.
Legend Of The Black Scorpion looks very good in this AVC encoded 2.35.1 1080p high definition widescreen transfer. Previous Dragon Dynasty Blu-ray transfers have periodically been problematic but this one is solid. The film is a very colorful one with lots of regal looking costumes and fancy sets and the extra clarity afforded by the high definition transfer really makes it easy to appreciate just how good this movie looks. Close up shots show great facial detail with longer and medium distance shots show strong depth and detail as well. Skin tones look nice and natural while black levels are satisfyingly deep. There aren't any problems with print damage, dirt or debris and all in all, the movie looks very impressive here.
Audio is also strong on this release, with the primary track coming in the form of a lossless Mandarin DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track with lossy options provided in Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. Optional subtitles are available in English, SDH, English, and Spanish. The score in particular sounds very impressive, with each instrument and vocalist coming through distinctly and clearly. The action scenes benefit from excellent and plentiful channel separation while the dialogue comes through with all the clarity you could hope for. The white subtitles are clean, clear and easy to read and free of any obvious typographical errors. Bass response is strong, the levels are consistently well balanced, and there are no problems with hiss or distortion to note.
The best extra on the disc is the commentary track from Bey Logan which does a good job of explaining the historical context of certain scenes and pointing out a lot of interesting details that you might miss otherwise. He, of course, explains the significance of certain visible details in the picture but also provides some welcome biographical information on the cast and crew and provides a good bit of trivia over the course of the active discussion. All in all, a solid track that fans of the film should take the time to listen to should they want to learn more about the film.
From there, check out the first of the two interviews on the disc, a twenty minute discussion with the film's director, Feng Xiaogang entitled Master Of Ceremonies in which he explains why he took on this project, what it was like staging some of the more epic scenes, and how he feels about the end result and working with the various participants who were involved in this film. The second interview is Warrior Prince and it's a twenty-three minute interview with leading man Daniel Wu. Here he talks about his character, some of the more unusual circumstances that arose during filming, what it was like working with Feng and others on this project, and about his character. Both interviews are pretty informative and include optional English subtitles.
Rounding out the supplements on the disc are A Dynasty Uncovered: Behind The Scenes On Legend Of The Black Scorpion, which is a lengthy forty-three minute look at the making of the movie which includes interviews with the cast and crew and some solid footage shot on set during the production. A trailer for the feature rounds out the extras, all of which are in standard definition and carried over from the standard definition release (which actually contained one extra trailer and a seven minute Cannes promo piece which do not appear on this Blu-ray release for some reason).
Legend Of The Black Scorpion is an impressive film. It's beautifully made, exciting and dramatic, well acted, and it makes good use of some very impressive sound design. This Blu-ray release from Dragon Dynasty/Vivendi look and sounds very good and while it doesn't carry over every one of the existing extra features from the DVD release, it does carry over the most important ones and the increased clarity of the high definition transfer and lossless audio mix make this the version to own. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.