Applying the Paradigm: Shakespeare and World Cinema
Burnett, Mark Thornton, Shakespeare Studies
FROM THE EVIDENCE OF THE art houses and multiplexes, at least, it might appear as if we have witnessed the death of Shakespeare and film. After a flurry of cinematic activity mainly spearheaded by Kenneth Branagh in the 1990s, and a few gusts of representation in the following decade, the "boom" of the Bard on-screen ground to a halt. Yet if we turn the coin over, so to speak, and attend to alternative systems of production and distribution, a more nuanced picture emerges. For, during this period, seemingly dominated by an Anglophone tradition, there has been a corresponding plethora of Shakespeare films developed outside immediate UK and US fields of circulation. Hence, William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (dir. Michael Hoffman, 1999) is often cited as a title that illustrates the enduring popularity of the play, yet it has rarely been linked to An Athens Summer Night's Dream (dir. Dimitris Athanitis, 1999), a Greek film that plays searching variations on the theme of a stage production of the drama affecting "real life." Such a comparison would surely yield pertinent findings touching upon the local complexions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and its cultural translatability.
Similarly, coming toward the end of a run of television productions was the Baz Luhrmann-inspired Macbeth (dir. Geoffrey Wright, 2006): an opportunity exists here for discussing the film in relation to another version of the play, Yellamma (dir. Mohan Koda, 2001), a Telegu-language recreation of Shakespeare's story of ambition set in India during the time of the Sepoy Mutiny. Dialogue between the two films could prompt us to reflect anew upon Macbeth's political resonances and to query critical assumptions about the universality of its analysis of power relations. More generally, paying attention to what resides outside the mainstream allows us to explore the ways in which current templates for filmed Shakespeare agree or disagree inside or across national boundaries. And by bringing into the arena of debate an international sense of filmic interpretations of Shakespeare's plays, we may yet arrive at a richer construction of "Shakespearean" significances. A "Shakespeare and World Cinema" line of inquiry is all the more urgent in that, by and large, criticism has tended to concentrate on a narrow sample of Anglophone Shakespeare films. (1) By contrast, extending the purview complicates the centrality of English-language film and inscribes a more representative and ethically responsible Shakespeare canon. The effect is to offer a new understanding of Shakespeare and his relevance, one that allows for interrogation of the channels through which we have access to Shakespearean production and insists upon a reengagement with plurality.
Pursuing the paradigm sketched here, I offer in this essay a working discussion of The Banquet (dir. Xiaogang Feng, 2006), a Chinese retelling of Hamlet, and use the film to ask questions about what might be entailed in a "Shakespeare and World Cinema" critical project. The Banquet declares its generic affiliations via the evocation of a bloody moment in Chinese history: an on-screen announcement informs us that the action is set in "China, 907 B.C. ... the period [of] ... the 'Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms' ... an era plagued by widespread turmoil ... and a bitter struggle for power within the imperial family." Lush cinematography reinforces the film's epic dimensions, as in the sumptuous opening where the extravagantly attired empress Wan/Gertrude (Ziyi Zhang) is filmed from behind processing toward the throne: the sequence recalls a similar back-view image of the protagonist in Hamlet (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2006) and positions The Banquet as a continuation of this earlier production in ambition and scale. Framing devices, then, consort with filmic content to establish recognizable interpretive parameters for The Banquet. Among them is perhaps the film's boldest rereading in which the Shakespearean family is reconfigured so as to highlight culture-specific questions about female agency. …