"THE EMPEROR & THE ASSASSIN"
161 minutes | Rated: R
In Mandarin with English subtitles
Opened: Friday, January 21, 2000
Directed by Chen Kaige
Starring Gong Li, Zhang Fengyi, Li Xuejian, Sun Zhou, Lu Xiaohe, Wang Zhiwen, Chen Kaige & Gu Yongfei
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 45%
A lengthy, subtitled historical drama at home? That's going to take some focus. But I remember this movie more fondly than I thought I might. Its length and inconsistent characters aside, it is fascinating.
VIDEO RELEASE: 6/13/2000
Ancient China is unified by a psychologically unstable king in spotty historical drama
An ambitious historical epic of espionage, artifice and combat in the imperial courts of ancient China, "The Emperor and the Assassin" vividly fictionalizes the brutal, third Century B.C. unification of that nation by the psychologically unstable King of Qin (Li Xuejian), the most powerful of the region's of seven kingdoms.
A complex, manifold narrative from Chen Kaige ("Farewell My Concubine," "Temptress Moon"), this wildly cinematic, Homeric endeavor juggles a lot of information in its sprawling 161 minutes, and is sewn together by a few key performances.
Gong Li is Lady Zhao, the King's lover and a royal from another kingdom, who is assigned to arrange an assassination attempt on the King, so Qin will have an excuse to invade the kingdom of Yan.
Zhang Fengyi is Jing Ke, the infamous assassin she tries to recruit, but falls in love with instead. Years before Jing became beggar after a crisis of conscience brought on by haunting memories of a blind girl he left orphaned (something Chan revisits repeatedly), and it takes witnessing Qin's military barbarity to coax him out of penitent retirement.
But the King's intentions are noble at first. A hero as the film begins, leading his troops into battle against neighboring Han, the mood-swinging King dreams of peace and prosperity in a harmonious China. But a psychotic appetite for destruction consumes him after he discovers several skeletons in his dynasty's closet, triggering genocidal brutality and leading to massive slaughters as his armies over-run rival kingdoms.
Coup attempts by Machiavellian underlings follow (Wang Zhiwen is oddly enjoyable as the conniving Marquis, an adviser to the king, his mother's secret lover and an absolute snake), and Lady Zhao, after seeing her own kingdom's children methodically murdered, so the King of Qin might elude any chance of future vengeance, resolves to see her assassination attempt through to actual fruition (in which case she should have recruited a hit man with less on his mind).
As a director, Chen is in love with every moment of his film, and it's astounding what he accomplishes on what by Hollywood standards would be a very small budget. The picture is saturated with symbolism and sumptuously filmed with choreographed horse-and-chariot battle sequences, elegant but simple cultural costumes, and an unforgettably imposing scene of the coup attempt, which ends with the Marquis and his followers being outnumbered, out-maneuvered and subsequently massacred by the King's guard on the vast steps of the spectacular palace.
But while savory as a visual and historical document -- if occasionally confusing (the press kit came with geography and character charts) -- "The Emperor and the Assassin" is also lethargic (the first hour could have easily been 20 minutes) and inconsistent -- especially when it comes to the character of the King, whose composure, charisma and emotional stability are (literally) all over the map.
Once the intrigue finally gets rolling, "The Emperor and the Assassin" might really engross anyone who is still awake, but it's still too much to digest in one sitting. I can't believe I'm suggesting this, but this story, with this amount of detail, would have made a better miniseries than a feature film.