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The Emperor and the Assassin
Year: 1998
Director: Chen Kaige
Cast: Li Xuejian, Gong Li, Zhang Fengyi, Gu Yongfei, Sun Zhou, Chen Kaige
The Skinny: A return in style for Chen Kaige, whose last 10 years have been a mix of highs (Farewell My Concubine, Life on a String) and depressing lows (Temptress Moon, Killing Me Softly). The Emperor and the Assassin is Epic in scope, much more historically relevant than the Chinese government may believe, and with features acting. A rewarding yet demanding experience, and one of the best wuxia pian of the last ten years - right up there with Musa: The Warrior and Ashes of Time.
by LunaSea:
"When the Map is Unrolled, the Dagger is Revealed." This is a famous figure of speech in China, which fits perfectly the story behind Chen Kaige's latest epic drama but also the subtle messages smartly hinted at throughout the film. It means that only at the end we see people's real intentions and their true nature. The film narrates the story of China's First Emperor, King Ying Zheng (who would later become Qin Shi Huang), who united the seven kingdoms in 221 B.C. to end the bloody era of The Warring States. What surprises in this film is not historical accuracy, but the fact that something that happened more than 2200 years ago could be so relevant today. The old saying that to predict the future you need to look back at the past seems to be what Chen and Wang are trying to communicate, and other than adapting the story of Jing Ke and Ying Zheng, narrated in The Records of The Historian (Shih Chi/ShiJi), and revision some of what happened (adding characters like Lady Zhao or changing situations to make the story more compelling) there's always a feeling what we're seeing on screen somehow mirrors Modern China and its relations towards countries like Taiwan. Ying Zheng's mandate from the ancestors to unite all the kingdoms and bring an end to countless wars and years of bloodletting reminds of hopes of reunification that we see today. The way he achieves his goal and some of his actions also bring back dark memories I'd rather forget, something everyone should be familiar with, Tiananmen Square (Especially when Lady Zhao weeps over the dead bodies of her people, probably one of the most powerful scenes of the film).
The figure of Ying Zheng assumes gigantic proportions in this film, making him the protagonist of a tragedy that reminds of Shakespeare, painting him as a fair and just man at the beginning, but one who eventually submits to his thirst for power and the dogmatic ancestral mandate he believes. Thanks to an amazing performance by the great Li Xuejian (Shanghai Triad, The Blue Kite), we see a man who changes drastically under pressure and because of paranoia totally goes against what his initial intentions were, to unite all of China peacefully and lead it to years of prosperity. That's at least what he promised, but everyone who wants power makes some promises which usually become dead air when they reach their goals. It seems like the use of Lady Zhao, who is a fictional character (Ying Zheng had many concubines and was said to treat women badly) and represents the love of his life is a tool used by the director to give a voice to those people who today, like back then, want humanity to prevail over bloodletting and power-thirsty leaders. Those are the people who wept for all those senseless battles and for all the people who lost their lives, and ask for a peaceful solution.

The film is structured into five acts which introduce the most important characters and lay the groundwork for the final part in which the reluctant assassin Jing Ke plots to kill the king. The fact the story is so intricate might be difficult to follow for someone who's not used to Chinese history, but the script flows well and the characters are developed so effectively that such apparent shortcomings don't really matter at the end (though being used to wuxia novels and the colossal, ultra-fragmented storytelling of books like Romance of The Three Kingdoms I may have a different point of view and appreciate certain subtleties better). Chen could have decided to focus on a history lesson, but he's instead more interested in three central characters and their motives: he's able to create a psychological profile for Ying Zheng, who at first seems to be able to control his power, but thanks to his dark secrets he's defeated by his own instincts. A basic idea like reconciling people from all over the region, to bring peace and prosperity to his kin clashes with the danger of holding too much power in one's hands. He can't handle the situation and the consequences are terrible (and guess who pays the price? The same people he was trying to 'help').

Jing Ke (Chen regular Zhang Fengyi, in another very good performance) is portrayed in a different way as well. The man from the Wei kingdom is presented like a professional killer who decides to stop because of something he experiences and that will change his vision of life forever, whereas in the Shih Chi he was a common man who helped people and was well liked. His relationship with Lady Zhao in the film helps her realize how the king's promises are just a hoax to hide his thirst for power, and that will shape the final part of the film and make Lady Zhao's character the face of humanity. She's a woman who can control herself except under tragic circumstances, and Gong Li's performance really help underline those traits. You could say Ying Zheng's maniacal change of mind represents the political dogma blinding China's leaders into trying to find the quickest solution even at the expense of the people and Lady Zhao is people's hopes and fears. She's the one who could change things but sadly it's not up to her to shape history. The film centers around the three main characters and decides to only hint or show a glimpse of those battles, for it's the issue that matters, and in showing the aftermath and not the battle Chen drives home his message in a better way. We don't need to be shocked by the act, but reflect on the consequences and try to not make the same mistakes.

For a film which boasts thousands of extras, incredible sets, awe-inspiring landscapes and battles in large scale, the fact that it's character development and superior storytelling which triumph is what makes the film stand out. Everything looks real down to the tiniest detail, and the cinematography and art direction just amplify that. Simply put, this is one of the most beautifully shot films of all time, its battles rival Ran and Kagemusha in scope and realism even if that's not the focus of the film, and the soundtrack by Zhao Jiping (who is often associated with fifth generation directors and their films) carries the film without feeling too intrusive. The superior acting (even by Chen himself as Lu Buwei) including supporting characters make The Emperor and The Assassin one of the most engrossing, captivating epic dramas of recent memory.

With Zhang Yimou being closer and closer to commercial filmmaking (although with remarkable results, see The Road Home as an example that his creativity and cinematic prowess are not lost), Tian Zhuangzhuang still recovering from The Blue Kite incident and not having produced anything of note for a while along with other Fifth Generation directors lagging behind the inventive approach of the new sixth generation (people like Wang Xiaoshuai, Jia Zhangke, Huo Jianqi, Zhang Yang, Zhang Yuan and others), Chen seems to be one of the few directors of that generation who still tries to make compelling films that also challenge the system, even with such subtlety like he uses here. Not only the film is a good history lesson, but a warning to not make the same mistakes the old rulers did in the past and a way to condemn China's current policies towards re-unification.

Side Note: The Mei Ah flipper (sic) DVD doesn't subtitle the final credits, which note that Ying Zheng's corpse is still preserved in a tomb at Xian, and that he united the seven kingdoms to become China's first emperor, but also that he died a year later (220 BC) and that the Qin empire came to an end less than 10 years after.

Availability: DVD
Mei Ah Laser
Mandarin Language Track
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen