Director Chen Kaige is best known in the U.S. for Farewell My Concubine, the most successful Chinese production ever released here. As many pointed out at the time, this Oscar-nominated 1993 epic of modern Chinese history may have been wholly Chinese in both content and viewpoint, but it was still, in broad terms, a serious gloss on Neil Simon's lightweight The Sunshine Boys.
Likewise, Chen's latest, The Emperor and the Assassin, could be considered the ancient Chinese equivalent of The Godfather. Centering around Ying Zheng, the man who created the Chinese Empire in the third century B.C., it is the story of someone who, in his ruthless pursuit of seemingly justified goals, turns himself into a monster -- a friendless, isolated monster at that.
When we first meet Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), he is King of Qin, the most powerful of the Chinese kingdoms. Hundreds of years of war have reduced the number of kingdoms to a mere seven; Ying Zheng hopes to end the constant misery and bloodshed by unifying them into one empire. He has a vision of peace, the rule of law, and equality; but, of course, the only way to achieve this unification is through more war. At the film's start, Qin has just conquered Han, and Ying Zheng has plans to take on Yan. He realizes, however, that this move might cause the remaining kingdoms to unite against him and foil his long-term ambitions. But his lover, Lady Zhao (Gong Li), comes up with a devious -- and, from a modern perspective, all too familiar -- scheme. She will accompany the prince of Yan back to his home, claiming that she now hates Ying Zheng; she will encourage the prince to hire an assassin to take out Ying Zheng; this will give Ying Zheng the excuse to invade.
Zhao finds Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi), a once-unbeatable hired killer, who has given up his trade after causing the death of a young blind girl. Now a lowly, impoverished sandal peddler, he is determined never to kill again. Having no fear of death, he would sooner die than take another life. As Zhao tries to induce him to take the job, a strange thing happens: Moved by his implacable nobility, she falls in love with him. But, ironically, their affair eventually leads to Jing Ke's decision to kill the would-be emperor, whose quest for power has led to unspeakable atrocities.
This is actually the second film about Ying Zheng to be released in the past year, following Zhou Xiaowen's The Emperor's Shadow. While both films seem to follow the story of the emperor's conquests with reasonable accuracy, their central stories are fanciful elaborations on the historical facts. They also share a number of actors, albeit in different roles. (A third film dealing with the reign of Ying Zheng, Stephen Shin's Hong Kong production The Great Conqueror's Concubine, also starring Gong Li and Zhang Fengyi, came out in 1994.)
The Emperor and the Assassin is far more epic in scope; in fact, it claims to be the most expensive Asian film ever made, and there's no reason to doubt that. There are a few huge, beautifully choreographed battle scenes with innumerable extras; the costuming and decor of the various royal palaces are no less lush. Despite the inevitable international financing, however, The Emperor and the Assassin appears to have been made primarily for Chinese audiences: That is, for the first half-hour or so, the politics are hopelessly confusing.
It is to Chen's credit that this problem is only temporary. Before a quarter of the movie's two-hour, 40-minute running time is up, we not only know what's going on -- we actually care. In large part, this is thanks to the actors. Gong Li is magnificent as always, and Zhang brings a wit and quiet strength to his role. The less well-known Li Xuejian, who receives third billing even though his is the largest part, more than holds his own as the morally deteriorating monarch; Wang Zhiwen, as a conniving coup plotter, gives a performance rich in surprise. (The casting of Gu Yongfei as the emperor's mother is less fortuitous, since she looks younger than her son.)
The production values are impeccable; cinematographer Fei Zhao, who also shot the current Woody Allen film, Sweet and Lowdown, does beautiful work here that (big surprise!) resembles his images for Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern. For those with a taste for epics that integrate the historical and the intimate, The Emperor and the Assassin should provide a treat. Those who are a bit squeamish might want to stay away: The film has moments of gore and grotesque savagery.
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