THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN
Genre: Historical epic
Runtime: 159 minutes
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Chen Kaige
Writer: Wang Peigong & Chen Kaige
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Directed by Chen Kaige, who crafted 1993's FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE and 1997's TEMPTRESS MOON, this movie tells the story of the first Emperor of China, Ying Zheng, who first unified the various provinces into one country and who began the Great Wall.
It took about 550 years for China to be divided into only seven different kingdoms. At the age of 13, in 247 B.C., Zheng became ruler of the most powerful of those kingdoms, Qin, or Ch'in (hence, China). His religious advisors have told him that the ancestors mandate that he must be the one to unify China. The leading religious leader even regularly reminds Zheng of that mandate. So, ambitious Zheng embarks on a bloody trail of conquest that eventually alienates him from his mother, his real father, his leading general, and the woman he loves, a longtime family friend and childhood companion named Lady Zhao. When Lady Zhao finally removes the scales from her eyes and sees the ruthless, paranoid character of Zheng's rule, she seriously plots with another king to assassinate him.
Filled with extravagant battle sieges and intense personal confrontations, THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN fails to capture the kind of grand vision that epic masterpieces like BEN-HUR, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or THE WIND AND THE LION once did. Part of the problem is that the many shots of vast armies battling one another and attacking cities are given little context beyond the fact that the king of Ch'in is trying to conquer the other six provinces. In fact, only in one or two battle scenes does the camera focus on an identifiable character to hold the viewer's interest.
As for the personal confrontations that link the political battles being waged, most of the actors in these scenes either underplay their roles or their style of acting resembles a poorly done Asian melodrama. Despite her reputation, Gong Li is not really memorable as Lady Zhao. It is hard to believe that her character ever loved King Zheng, who, as played by Li Xuejian, is often childlike in his behavior and affections. In fact, the childlike behaviors that often come from the king are rather irritating. Their melodramatic, quirky character destroy the realism and dramatic intensity that the director tries to attain in the rest of the movie. Of course, the audience finally meets the assassin who figures in the title, but the movie never seems to give the actor who plays him, Zhang Fengyi, the chance to bring out the kind of star quality that actors such as Toshiro Mifune or Chow Yun Fat have portrayed in similar roles.
Happily, however, the movie includes little of the strong occult ancestor worship that irreparably marred Disney's MULAN. It also takes a moral stand against the government tyranny that King Zheng uses to conquer the other provinces. Against his brutal tyranny, the movie extols freedom, peace and love. Still, there are some strong profanities in the movie's dialogue and the violence, while not overly graphic or gory, is strong, although the worst of it is either off-screen or tastefully old-fashioned.
Older children and teenagers probably won't be interested in THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN, but parents should still be cautious.