The Emperor and the Assassin
1998, R, 161 min. Directed by Chen Kaige. Starring Chen Kaige, Wang Zhiwen, Lu Xiaohe, Sun Zhou, Li Xuejian, Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 18, 2000
Remember a few years back when they dug up all those fiercely mysterious terra cotta warriors standing guard in front of an ancient Chinese grave? That grave was the burial site of Ying Zheng, the first emperor of China, who died in 210 B.C., and is the primary subject of The Emperor and the Assassin. He was the leader who, driven by a holy mission to “unite all under heaven,” created a unified China from seven warring states. But his signature flaw was that he became a horrific murderer who conducted massive campaigns of torture and cruelty in the pursuit of his quest. Much as Bernardo Bertolucci gave us the spectacle of The Last Emperor on film, Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige now offers us the tale of that country's first emperor -- and the result is even more sumptuous, epic, and engrossing than anything Bertolucci might have ever imagined. It's both fair and unfair to make such comparisons, unfair because any work obviously needs to be viewed on its own merits, but also fair because the experience of watching The Emperor and the Assassin incites memories of other film wonders -- from De Mille to Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune to Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. Clearly, this is a film in good company. Nevertheless, it charts its own course. At about $20 million, the film is the most expensive Chinese production to date. Everything about its scale is epic, and the result can be seen on the screen. Exquisitely mounted compositions populated by literal “armies” of extras stir the eye while intimate human dramas and deeply disturbing horrors fill the foregrounds. Behaviors so mandarin that they fascinate our imaginations with their pomp and ritual alternately contrast with graphic brutalities that embarrass our very souls to witness. The movie can be so compellingly baroque (at least to Western senses) and medieval, but then switches to dramatically operatic and in-your-face visceral. The mise-en-scène goes from distilled lighting to bloody battlefield document to stunning depth of focus to mannered contextual fields as frequently as it goes from blazing action drama to court intrigue. I worried at first that the film was going to require too much understanding of medieval Chinese history as well as a commitment of two hours and 40 minutes to watch. Not long into the viewing, all fears of history subsided as the epic swept me under its spell, parceling out judicious bits of background on a purely need-to-know basis. It's a spellbinding tale, and it's also a love story, a dramatized history, and a saga about the reality of morality. The Emperor and the Assassin is also, most certainly, meaningful as a contemporary Chinese allegory (two of Chen's previous films are banned for screening in China). There is always the sense about this film that it is possessed of greatness and one of the proofs of that is because of its multiple intriguing paths of entry. Pick any one and you're likely to find yourself on a very good path.