The emperor in question is Chinas first, Ying Sheng (Jiang Wen), who conquered and united the countrys various provinces around 200 B.C. His shadow is Gao Jianli (Ge You), his boyhood friend and a musical prodigy who grows up to be a famous musician and a royal pain in the royal rear. Though theres a gulf between the two Sheng has become all-powerful while Jianli is a commoner whose people are among the conquered the emperor wants to do right by his old pal, both out of respect for their youthful ties and to honor Jianlis impressive talent. He makes him the court musician and gives him the job of composing the countrys first national anthem, but all Jianli wants is the emperors daughter Yueyang (Xu Qing). Which is not good.
As history this is about 70 percent bunk, 20 percent speculation and 10 percent factual, but it hardly matters since The Emperors Shadow is the kind of mammoth, enjoyable spectacle you hardly see anymore, with thousands of extras milling about meaningfully, vast vistas and opulent interiors and enough bloodshed to turn a river red which actually happens at one point. At the center of it all is a charismatic performance by Wen as the down-to-earth emperor, given to looking bemused and saying things like "cut the crap." Hes a rather likable guy as bloodthirsty tyrants go, which makes the movies ironic coda all the more bittersweet.