Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Legend of Black Scorpion. Out Today. Hamlet goes Crouching Tiger. (*******7/10)

Asian cinema loves the Shakespeare. Akira Kurosawa based half his work on the works of the bard, most notably Ran (King Lear) and Throne Of Blood (Macbeth). And of course, Shakespeare borrowed heavily from others in terms of stories and structure, which means that his stories, and the Asian movies that accompany them, are hundreds of years old. He wrote a play called "Hamlet" that was based on the legend of Amleth, as told by the thirteenth century scholar Saxo Grammaticus. The latest movie from Alliance Films, The Legend of Black Scorpion, is a re-telling of Hamlet. Therefore, the story is about 800 years old, and it feels that way, as it should. Black Scorpion does not credit Grammaticus in the credits, but then, neither did Shakespeare.

The Legend of Black Scorpion features the incomparable Zhang Ziyi, one of the most beautiful women in all of Asian cinema. (You might remember her from such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and Hero.) One complaint I have with this film is that she doesn’t fight. I love watching her fight. The Emperor of China has been murdered by his own brother. That brother has usurped the throne, and taken the former Emperor’s wife as his own. The old Emperor’s son has been banished, since he is the only one who could topple the current empire and lay a legitimate claim to the throne. But when that young man fights through traps and assassins to reach the kingdom, things get all weird. And Shakespearean.

You see, this young man was once in love with the Empress. He wanted her for himself, but his father married her instead, and now she lives with the uncle who murdered his dad. They seem to still be in love, but there is another woman at the palace that he runs around with while he is waiting for his chance to take the throne, and, by extension, his step-mother. And aunt. Hmmm. How very Shakespeare. This nephew is an actor more so than he is a fighter, and he puts on plays for the amusement of the court, plays that are pointed and directed at his murderous uncle. In true Shakespearean style, these plays are carried out with all the performers wearing masks. There is some great dialogue, especially a speech about wearing a mask and acting and swordfighting. Which is really what the movie is all about.

Well, that and jealousy, betrayal, and the inability to contain one’s inner nature. There are some really cool fight scenes. Not as cool as the ones in Hero, but above-average, even for Hong Kong martial arts cinema. We are not sure whether or not we like the Empress, at least until the end of the film, and even then it’s ambiguous. There are relationships between other characters that add a lot to the movie, especially the relationship between Yin (one of the Emperor’s advisors) and his son. It reminded me a lot of the relationship between Robert The Bruce and his father in Braveheart. The old man wanting to be diplomatic, the young man headstrong and uncompromising. And yet, willing to defend his father to his last breath.

And there are a lot of last breaths in Legend of Black Scorpion. After all, it’s Hamlet. Anyone who has any knowledge of Hamlet or of Shakespearean tragedy can probably guess how this film is going to end, so it really won’t come as a surprise. But I would caution against skipping out too soon, before the credits begin to roll. The final shot in this movie is magnificent, a beautiful shot that caps everything so well it would be worth watching even if the movie was bad. But it isn’t. The Legend of Black Scorpion will not end up being a Hong Kong classic, but with good swordfights, solid acting, great dialogue and the incredible ability that Chinese directors seem to have of using colours effectively, it is well worth renting. The Legend Of Black Scorpion comes out today, courtesy of Alliance Films.

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