Emperor and the Assassin, The (Jing Ke Ci Qin Wang) (China, 1999) *** 1/4
Directed by Chen Kaige. Written by Wang Peigong and Kaige. Photography, Zhao Fei. Editing, Zhao Xinxia. Production design Tu Juhua. Music, Zhao Jiping. Produced by Han Sanping, Shirley Kao and Satoru Iseki. Cast: Gong Li (Lady Zhao), Zhang Fengyi (Jing Ke), Li Xuejian (Ying Zheng, King of Qin), Sun Zhou (Dan, Prince of Yan), Lu Xiaohe (Gen. Fan Yuqi) Wang Zhiwen (Marquis Changxin) and a cast of thousands. A Le Studio Canal Plus/Pricel/Shin Corp./NDF presentation of a New Wave Co./Beijing Film Studio production. A Sony Classics release. In Mandarin with subtitles, 161-163 minutes. R (violence and gore)
Unless you are a fiercely militant member of the BBNMM group (Bring Back the Ninety Minute Movie), you can not only endure but enjoy this long film. Enjoy visually, that is. "E & A" 's top award for production design at Cannes '99, was deserved. The sets and 'scapes -- as well as the photography and the mass movements -- are breathtaking.
If you are a scholar of Chinese history, this story, climaxing in 221 BC, may thrill you for its subject. It may also get you going pointing out liberties taken with history, inaccuracies, inventions or fictionalizations--but I wouldn't worry about that. Few moviegoers outside China are specialists. College-age film students in 2000 AD have little historical memory, not to mention knowledge. This, in spite of the abundance of historical programs on TV. Ignorance of even major events of the 19th century often finds an astounding alibi in "that was before my time."
The convoluted story centers around the efforts of Ying Zheng, the King of Qin. After centuries of turmoil, Qin and six other kingdoms (The Seven Warring Kingdoms) were China's main subdivisions. (The film deals wit four of them.) Ying is obessed with unifying them under his rule, or in less polite terms, of conquering them. His methods are ruthless. He also plots with his lover Lady Zhao for skullduggery which would give him "legitimate" cause for attacking the most powerful of the other kingdoms, the neighboring Yan. The trick is to make of Lady Zhao what, in today's parlance we might call a mole or a double agent who would arrange for a professional assassin in the pay of Yan to attempt murdering Ying, thus clearing the way for the latter's invasion of the kingdom of Yan.
This is the main thread of a tale so complex that it requires printed explanations on the screen. It includes a great many atrocities as Ying evolves from idealist to tyrant; a betrayal of Lady Zhao by her regal lover; her falling in love wit the assassin Jing Ke; the newfound scruples of the now-retired killer; and many other twists, events and characters, plus a host of warriors.
This is epic filmmaking that melds Hollywood spectaculars by C.B. De Mille, other lavish historical films ("Ben-Hur," "Spartacus," etc.), crowd scenes a la Sergei Eisenstein, certain Kurosawa movies, even some Italian epics made in the early 1900s. It is impressive. It is splendidly photographed. It is color coordinated (oh those Chinese reds! Colors that is, not Reds).
Much pomp and many circumstances have made "E & A" the most expensive Chinese film ever. It was three years in the making. Its first test-screening, in Japan, was of about 3 hours (180 minutes.). The next cut was down to 160 minutes. A third went down to 140 minutes. The fourth and final one, went back up to 161 minutes. Curiously, it was not shot, as it should have been, in 70mm widescreen.
The film was partly financed by sources outside China, notably French ones. The actual cost has not been divulged, but calculated guesses range, in US Dollars, from 10 to 30 million. Even at the top figure the movie is amazingly cheap by European standards, dirt-cheap by American standards. I would guess that its Hollywood cost would be close to 200 million.
Chinese labor and other costs are so low that I can also guess that given the right political and trade circumstances, there would be a spate of movies filmed in China by foreign interests.
The director is Chen Kaige who, along with Zhang Yimou is today the super-star of the so-called Fifth Generation of China's filmmakers. This is the seventh feature by Chen who skyrocketed to international renown with his fifth, "Farewell My Concubine," the co-winner of the 1993 Cannes Festival along with Jane Campion's "The Piano."
For the beautiful and talented actress Gong Li (Lady Zhao) this is her third film with Chen. Her debut was in "Red Sorghum" (1987) which was also the directorial debut of Zhang Yimou. I don't know when those two became "an item," but they worked together in all the other six Zhang features between 1989 and 1995: "Codename Couguar," "Du Jou," "Raise the Red Lantern," "Qiu Ju," "To Live," "Shanghai Triad." Then they separated, both in real life and in films.
"E & A" is said (but no one seems to know the specifics) to have employed 300,000 extras ( I suspect set-builders are included in this figure) and many thousands of Red Army soldiers. Many lavish and detailed interiors and exteriors were constructed. Ying Zheng's palace was conserved as an attraction for visitors, a show place. In another show place, Beijing's Great Hall of the People in Tienanmen Square, the movie was projected in 1988 to three thousand guests, probably a first of its kind in China. Chen, who had not always been the darling of censorship, was not criticized. Ying, the King, then Emperor of the film, is by tradition one of China's great heroes. Eventually however, the Chinese media were critical of the unflattering presentation of Ying.
There is also a debate about Ying the Unifier and Mao that other Unifier. The two are often compared. However, some people feel (but director Chen Kaige evades the question) that the movie is an allegory for Mao's Great Leap Forward.and his catastrophic Cultural Revolution.
With its enormous stress on visuals and often melodramatic twists and turns, there is no real room left for the analysis of characters. The performances are good. They include the principals as well as some supporting parts such as a charming blind girl whose family the assassin had destroyed, and a canny, effeminate Marquis . He is the Queen Mother's lover, wily, role-playing and the exact opposite of what is called in computerese WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get).
The various illustrations of "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely" are points made vividly. And the impermanence of tyranny (think Hitler, Stalin ...and Mao) is a post-scriptum in the film, as one learns that the King became Emperor, but only for fifteen years.
PS. Ying Zheng was responsible for the Great Wall of China. It is also his tomb, at Xian, that is guarded by that huge, famous collection of terra cotta soldiers.