It takes more than just thousands of extras and hundreds of craftspeople duplicating buildings, artifacts and costumes to make a truly successful historical epic. It takes a grand visual style, dynamic acting and compelling storytelling. Regrettably, this is where the Chinese epic, THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN, misses the mark, despite the incredible efforts of its talented cast and crew.
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.
Moral worldview of failed fight against socialist government tyranny, with mention of Chinese king's mandate from ancestors to unify China, but no prayers to ancestors; 1 obscenity (bas**ard) & 9 strong profanities (all "g-d" epithets against evil king); strong (but not graphic or gory) violence including scenes of war, images of corpses, assassin kills family with sword, man brands people's faces with tiny mark), blind girl stabs herself rather than live without family, attempted revenge killing, man tied to torture post, children jump off city wall rather than surrender, man hangs himself off screen, man stabs himself to death off screen, man commits suicide by jumping off wall with child in his arms, attempted murder ends with one man stabbing other man to death with sword, & movie implies evil king's soldiers buried children alive, but movie only shows some of their corpses; no sex; upper male nudity in naturalistic settings; alcohol use; and, cruelty, tyranny, dictator breaks promises of peace to those closest to him, & images from afar of a head without a body, encased in a casket.