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Jing Ke ci Qin Wang

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, Chen Kaige's "The Emperor and the


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 in the detailed sets and costumes, battle scenes and its

cast of thousands.

Set in the third century B.C., "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'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. "The Emperor and the

Assassin" plays like a 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


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, portrayed

luminously by Gong Li. Lady Zhao and Ying Zheng concoct a 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 which unleashes a fervent bloodlust that makes the

tragic denouement seem inevitable.

While its running time of 2 hours and 41 minutes might be off-putting to

some, "The Emperor and the Assassin" moves at a brisk pace. Chen has

crafted a movie that while somewhat emotionally distant is nevertheless

engrossing, in part to the acting of its leads, most especially Gong Li.

* MPAA rating: R, for violence.

"The Emperor and the Assassin"

Gong Li: Lady Zhao

Li Xuejian: Ying Zheng

Zhang Fengyi: Jing Ke

Sun Zhou: Dan

Wang Zhiwen: Marquis Changxin

An SPC presentation. Director Chen Kaige. Screenplay Wang Peigong and

Chen Kaige. Producers Shirley Kao, Satoru Iseki and Han Sanping.

Director of photography Zhao Fei. Editor Zhao Xinxia. Music Zhao Jiping.

Production designers Tu Juhua and Lin Qi. Costume designers Mo Xiaomin

and Huang Qiuping. Art directors Yang Shudong and Ji Weihua. Set

decorators Yi Zhenzhou and Zhang Xiaoman. Running time: 2 hours, 41