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