The Emperor and the Assassin

on December 15, 1999 by Ed Scheid
   Based on the true story of China's first emperor, "The Emperor and the Assassin" is the most elaborate historical epic filmed in China. The film's director/co-writer, Chen Kaige, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1993 for "Farewell My Concubine," which also starred this film's lead, Gong Li. Chen has said that the Chinese in the period of the film faced the same difficult choices as people do today: power vs. freedom, war vs. peace and love vs. hate.
   In 320 B.C., the King of Qin (Li Xuejian) is obsessed with uniting the different kingdoms of China. His lover, Lady Zhao (Gong Li), believes his vision of a unified China will protect the people of the competing kingdoms. In aiding the King, Lady Zhao devises a fake assassination plot which will justify an invasion of the neighboring kingdom, and enlists the help of Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi), an assassin who is trying to give up his bloody past. But as the King becomes increasingly destructive and bloodthirsty in his quest for conquest, Lady Zhao finds her affections turning Jing Ke.
   The elaborate and meticulous reconstruction of the violent historical area gives the film a genuine epic sweep. The battle scenes are particularly well-staged, and there are several tense and gripping scenes as secrets are revealed and the King turns even more violent. But while the story is always engrossing, the screenplay lacks the emotional complexity that made "Farewell My Concubine" so memorable.
   More than making up for this is Gong Li, who creates another compelling characterization. Her delicate features show the conflicting emotions and fierce determination as her Lady Zhao reluctantly turns against the man she has loved since childhood. Ying Xuejian brings an authoritative screen presence to the role of the King, and the rest of the cast is also impressive.    Starring Gong Li, Li Xuejian and Zhang Fengyi. Directed by Chen Kaige. Written by Wang Peigong and Chen Kaige. Produced by Chen Kaige, Shirley Kao and Satoru Iseki. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Drama. Mandarin-language; subtitled. Running time: 160 min.
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