|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 THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN,
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
THE FIRST EMPEROR OF CHINA and 1996's THE EMPEROR'S SHADOW,
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
murdered), 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, THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN
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.
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.