Old Stuff

The Emperor and the Assassin (Jing Ke Ci Qin Wang, 1999)

Directed by Kaige Chen

If parts of Chen Kaige's modern epic, "Farewell My Concubine" from 1993 with its tale of two street urchins who rise to prominence in the Peking Opera Company is Dickensian, then "The Emperor and the Assassin" is Shakespearean. By film's end, the story of China's first emperor and his rise to power had all the elements we associate with the bard's historical tragedies except for one thing -- the bad guy lives to become the first emperor of China. Think of a triumphant Richard III and you'll get the idea.

The Emperor and the Assassin

It is the 3rd Century BC China is divided into seven warring kingdoms. Only one king -- Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian) of Qin -- has the cunning and ruthlessness to unite them into one empire under one "King of All Under Heaven". Once his master plan is set in motion, his childhood sweetheart, the Lady Zhao (Gong Li), cannot tame him; his mother, the Queen, cannot control him; and a plotting court official, the Marquis, cannot undermine him. Not even the combined forces of his enemies can stop him. The task falls to one man, Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi), an assassin for hire in "The Emperor and the Assassin".

The Emperor and the Assassin

I have to admit I had a few problems with the identity of a few of the characters but as the plot unfolded, their faces became familiar to me and I settled into each of their stories as if enjoying a good read. I was totally absorbed with each of them. At first, Zheng is lionized by his men, humanized by the Lady Zhao, and respected by his peers. He is a brilliant war tactician who yearns to rule with benevolence. The Lady Zhao offers to help him with a labyrinthine plot to win the trust of his sworn enemy, Prince Dan (Sun Zhou) of Yan, and discredit him with an assassination attempt on Zheng's life that is meant to fail. Zheng's biggest threat comes in the revelation of a secret that would topple him from the throne. It must be concealed at all costs if he is to fulfill his destiny. Intrigue wafts through the bastions of power inviting suspicion at every corner. The Prime Minister of Qin, played by Chen Kaige, and one of Zheng's generals emerge from the background as pivotal figures in his shifting fortunes. He cannot wait for the hired assassin to act. If Zheng is to consolidate his power he must act swiftly and without mercy. He embarks on a bloodthirsty reign of terror to purge the land of his enemies, real and imagined, without regard to age, sex, or caste.

The Emperor and the Assassin

Writer/director Chen Kaige has spared no expense to bring the story of China's first emperor to the screen. It has all the action, thrills and romance of an old-fashioned Hollywood epic. Chariots race across the Chinese plains in fits of battle and a sea of infantrymen march in grid like formation with their instruments of death and destruction. I suspect comparisons will be made to Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" and "Kagemusha" because of their memorable battle scenes and casts of thousands in a feudal Asian setting: but my thoughts ran to "El Cid" (1961) and the Moors attack in the Battle of Valencia, as well as the final confrontation between the Roman Legions and the slave army in "Spartacus" (1960). These pictures also had strong female leads -- Sophia Loren in the former, and Jean Simmons in the latter -- that gave the movies their heart and soul. Gong Li does the same for "The Emperor and the Assassin" as Lady Zhao. Zheng reveals his humanity to her but the feared assassin, Jing Ke wins the Lady's love. Ke's spiritual catharsis, comparable to that of Paul of Tarsus in the New Testament, and his conversion from ruthless killer to hermetic wanderer become the centerpiece of the movie. Then news of Zheng's barbarous incursions into Lady Zhao's homeland reach her ears, and her mission takes on a new meaning.

The Emperor and the Assassin

"The Emperor and the Assassin" will probably be regarded as one of Chen Kaige's masterworks just for the sheer scope and size of its ambition. If so, the magnitude of Chen Kaige's achievement will not be measured by the overwhelming weight and heft of the movie's spectacle but by his ability to reach back in time to create flesh and blood creatures with the same fears and doubts of the modern world where dictators still rule, and the seeds of love and compassion can still take root and thrive. -- Rating: $7.50

Greg Murray -- copyright 1999

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