We were so excited about John Woo's Red Cliff that we had to watch another Chinese costume epic while waiting for it to be available.
Legend of the Black Scorpion a.k.a. Night Banquet is essentially a Chinese Hamlet, with a touch of Macbeth. The prince (Daniel Wu) is planning to marry Little Wan (Ziyi Zhang from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but his father the emperor marries her instead. The emperor's brother then kills him and marries Wan, thus setting up the Hamlet situation.
The prince hides out in a theater school, leading to the best scene. The usurping emperor's assassins attack the school, and find all masked mimes who gesture dramatically, and usually die unarmed. The balconies, stages and ramps of the school are made entirely of bamboo, making for a dramatic, multilevel, wire-fu fight of swordsman vs. mimes. Too bad it comes so early in the movie, because I don't think it gets that good again.
The movie is long, and frequently slow (lots of horses galloping in slo-mo). There are other good action sequences, but not that many and not as good. The movie gets by mainly on art direction and sexual perversity. A good example of both is a strange boulder in the Emperor's palace with a hollow in which the prince lies while his hair streams out under a fountain. His ex-fiancee and step-mother combs his hair out in the water in a scene both erotic and touching, and rather creepy.
An interesting movie, but I couldn't find it compelling.
Red Cliff was similar, but quite different in effect. It was set in around the same period (long ago), it is also filled with costumes, palaces and art direction, plus plenty of action: big armies, one-on-one or one-on-many swordfights, horseback, naval, etc. Actually that's one difference - there's a lot more action in Red Cliff.
The plot involves an evil prime minister who convinces the weak emperor to let him conquer the Southlands. This leads two kings of the south to forge an alliance, lead by their generals and advisors. This is another difference - Red Cliff is an ensemble, with 2-4 generals and a few advisors on each team. Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays the the most loyal and valorous general of the south, while Takeshi Kaneshiro plays a wise strategist. I thought of him as an Odysseus, but Ms. Spenser saw him as the Legolas of the group, because he was smart, cute and used a bow.
Even at 2 hours plus, this movie flies along. It has a few John Woo touches, like the classic standoff of two guys with their guns to each others heads (except with swords). The action is solid, the actors and characters memorable, costumes and scenery are beautiful. The score has a little too much John Williams for my taste, but there's a lovely guqin duet (table harp). Like the guqin solo for the fight in the rain in Hero, it is one of my favorite parts of this movie.
Another thing I liked is that Red Cliff concentrates on strategy, with the Southland generals out-thinking their opponents. But I guess the main thing is, it is just a better movie than Black Scorpion. Less bizarre, but better made.
By the way, the legend of the black scorpion refers to the poison that evil uncle poured in the emperors ear. It was made of a mixture of crushed black scorpions and southern erysipelas. Erysipelas is not a poison!
In conclusion, the original, 2-film version of Red Cliff is now available. At least 5 hours long. We will be seeing it soon.