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With: Gong Li, Zhang Fengyi, Li Xuejian, Sun Zhou, Lu Xiaohe, Wang Zhiwen, Zhou Xun
Written by: Wang Peigong, Chen Kaige
Directed by: Chen Kaige
MPAA Rating: R for violence
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 162
Date: 10/08/1998

The Emperor and the Assassin (1999)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The First Emperor

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The new film by Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) is liable to remind people of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987). The two watched back to back might make an interesting history of China. The Last Emperor follows Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, and The Emperor and the Assassin follows Ying Zheng, the first emperor of China--the man who unified its various small kingdoms to make one nation.

Besides the length and spectacle of the two films, the similarities end there. The Emperor and the Assassin is more specifically Chinese, and less passive than Bertolucci's film. It has the form of an ancient tale, but Chen mixes in rich details and politics to make it all come alive and seem relevant. Ying Zheng (played by Li Xuejian) wishes to fulfill a promise made to his ancestors that he would unify China, which at this time is divided into seven small "kingdoms," each with its own royal family. Ying cannot simply attack, as the other kingdoms will band together against him. Ying's wife and childhood sweetheart Lady Zhao (Gong Li) comes up with a plan to allow Ying to invade the kingdom of Yan. Lady Zhao is unhappy living as a queen and wants to leave anyway. So she will leave with the Prince of Yan, whom Ying has captured as a prisoner, and hire an assassin to attempt to kill Ying. Once the assassin's origins are uncovered, Ying will have a legitimate excuse to attack Yan. Once Yan is under control, the rest will be easy.

Two things happen to thwart this plan. Trouble occurs when Lady Zhao and the Prince of Yan find their assassin, Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi). Jing Ke was once a great assassin, but retired after a particularly horrific episode (which Chen shows us over and over in flashback). The Prince has made up his mind that Jing Ke is the right choice, and it's up to Lady Zhao to convince Jing Ke to kill the king. Meanwhile back at the palace, the Marquis (Wang Zhiwen), who serves the Queen Mother (Gu Yongfei) and is also her secret lover, plots a coup against Ying. When it fails, the Marquis blurts out a secret about Ying's heritage that makes the king snap.

The Emperor and the Assassin is not an easy movie to sum up. It's a true epic, told with brilliant characters and a rich history. I've read a few recent articles that break down the Movie Epic into two types: a personal history of a great man like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), or a significant event in history, like The Birth of a Nation (1915) or Gone with the Wind (1939) or even Titanic (1997). The Emperor and the Assassin attempts to wed both, and it succeeds.

We expect an epic like this to be gorgeous, and it is. It's photographed by Zhao Fei, who shot Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern (1992) and Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown (1999). Zhao Fei brings symmetry into nearly every shot. Every building, every room is seen from a wide angle and we take in all sides. Everything is lined up straight and elegant. Only the humans are juxtaposed within shots, and that's what makes the film work emotionally within such a rigid structure.

Generally epics leave me with two gut responses. Firstly, I like that the filmmaker has the guts to attempt something so huge. His imagination has reached to the greatest boundaries of sky and earth to envision such a movie. But at the same time, it's very hard to make such a huge spectacle connect on a smaller, emotional level. A viewer may congratulate him or herself for getting through such a huge story and understanding it and following it. But were they really involved in the intricacies of the story? Do we really believe the human connections? Or was it all just spectacle and pageantry?

The Emperor and the Assassin does have moments that we believe. The moments are larger-than-life, and easy to swallow, such as Jing Ke rescuing a young boy caught stealing bread from being tortured. But perhaps that's necessary for a Western audience to swallow such a huge chunk of Chinese history in one sitting. I think the film is an overall success and that Western audiences will get a thrill out of it. Sometimes we need something spectacular like this to remind us just how big the movies can be.

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