Director Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin is reminiscent of the type of biblical and historical epics which flourished in the West in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, where the characterizations are nearly pre-Freudian, the action takes place in a luxuriant vastness, and the plot moves easily between the intriguing and the ridiculous. Ostensibly another version of China’s founding myth – the last one was Zhou Xiaowen’s The Emperor’s Shadow (1996, U.S. release in 1999) – it’s actually a not-too-subtle tale of the corrupting influence of power, a nearly three-hour-long protest movie wrapped in reams of eye candy and made to seem untopical by the primeval strutting and whimpering of its principles.
The emperor of the title is China’s first, Ying Zheng, who, during the third century B.C., unified the country’s seven autonomous kingdoms in a single superstate. Ying was the ruler of the Qin kingdom and his method of unification was to conquer the other six. If your eyes are glazing over already, be warned that two of the kingdoms that Ying is much concerned with are called Yan and Han, and it takes a hearty ability to concentrate not to occasionally confuse the two (fortunately the kingdoms of Qi and Qu are outside the main storyline).
Having conquered Han, Ying is looking for an excuse to do the same to Yan – for a ruthless dictator, he has a well-developed sense of protocol – at which point Lady Zhao, apparently an old girlfriend of Ying’s who hangs around the palace, suggests that she go to Yan disguised as a defector from the Qin camp and hire an assassin to do Ying in. Since Ying will be in on the scam, the assassin will be easily foiled and held up as an example of Yan aggression, allowing for a justified invasion.
The assassin she chooses is the infamous Jing Ke, one of those wonderful movie types with unerring reflexes and eyes in the back of his head. The problem is that Jing, having been traumatized by his complicity in the suicide of a young girl, has given up his homicidal ways and is now content to wander the land as a scruffy loner (he seems to have given up bathing and shaving as well), using violence only in cases of extreme injustice, and even then with great reluctance. Lady Zhao’s task is to convince Jing Ke that Ying is worth coming out of retirement for, is deserving of that one last hit. Needless to say, complications ensue.
But complications are always ensuing in The Emperor and the Assassin and the above is only one of its plot strands. There’s enough political intrigue, mass slaughter and Kurosawa-like battle scenes here for several movies.
Li Xuejian is a bit too theatrically fierce as Ying Zheng and Gong Li too enigmatically remote as Lady Zhao, but Zhang Fengyi’s assassin is pitch perfect, a wounded dog you don’t want to cross. More of him and less of everything else would have made the movie much more compelling.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.