The Emperor and the Assassin

          Political intrigues, family secrets, mendacious politicians and a
  love triangle: these are just some of the ingredients that comprise one
  of the year's most sumptuous films
  directed by Chen Kaige.

          This sweeping historical epic with classical overtones is purportedly
  the most expensive film ever made in Asia and much of the money spent
  can be seen on screen in the detailed sets and costumes, in its battle
  scenes and its cast of thousands. Set in the third century BC,
THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN focuses on the ambitious ruler
  Ying Zheng, the King of Qin (played by Li Xuejian) who sets out
  to become the first ruler of a unified China. Although some of the same
  material formed the nucleus of the controversial 1989 IMAX documentary
  Chen Kaige's approach is more Shakespearean and spectacular. The
  director clearly knows how to stage individual set pieces with flair --
  the opening battle sequences are vivid, almost a cross between
BRAVEHEART and the Omaha Beach section of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
 -- but the emotional core of the film is more remote. Instead,
THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN plays like an historical pageant
  -- more Shakespeare's
Henry VIII than Henry V -- albeit one that
  is beautifully realized (in no small part because of the painterly
  cinematography of the great Zhao Fei).

          This is a demanding film in that the audience must pay close
  heed to the story. Many of the main characters were raised as
  hostages in rival kingdoms and those experiences color later events.
  The intricate web of love affairs might also confuse less attentive
  audience members but those who do follow closely can enjoy the
  spectacle and the fine acting.

          The complicated plot also draws heavily on Shakespearean
  influences -- and one could debate whether these are imposed by
  the filmmaker or germane to history and therefore predate the Bard.
  There are allusions, whether conscious or not to several of
  Shakespeare's plays, including
Richard III (rival young princes
Hamlet (a mother's remarriage and a son's disapproval),
  and Macbeth (a plot to murder a king).

          At the heart of the film, and the character who bridges the two
   worlds of the titular characters is the King's concubine, Lady Zhao,
  luminously portrayed by Gong Li. Lady Zhao and Ying Zheng concoct
  plan to have an assassin sent from a rival kingdom as a pretext for
  war and a step toward achieving the King of Qin's desire for a unified
  country. Each, however, underestimates the other. Lady Zhao falls in
  love with the hired assassin Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi) while Ying Zheng
  becomes drunk on a power that unleashes a fervent bloodlust that
  makes the tragic denouement seem inevitable.

          While its running time is two hours and forty-one minutes
  might be off-putting to some,
moves at brisk pace. Chen Kaige has crafted a movie that while
  somewhat emotionally distant is nevertheless engrossing, in part to
  the acting of its leads, most especially Gong Li.

Rating:        A-
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.