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06 November 2005

The Emperor and the Assassin (1999)

Gong Li (Lady Zhao), Li Xuejian (Ying Zheng), Zhang Fengyi (Jing Ke), Wang Zhiwen (Marquis Changxin)

Directed by: Chen Kaige (Farewell, My Concubine)

Mandarin title: Jing ke ci qin wang

From Hollywood Video: "A power- hungry Chinese emperor hatches a plot with his mistress to kill an heir to the throne, but she falls in love with their intended victim."

Now see, that's just stupid and not even close to correct. I don't think anyone at Hollywood Video actually watches the foreign titles!

It should read: "In pre-unified China, the King of Qin sends his concubine to a rival kingdom to produce an assassin for a political plot, but as the king's cruelty mounts she finds her loyalty faltering." - IMDB

I do not think I would have watched this film had I known that Chen Kaige directed Farewell, My Concubine. Shudder! Even Gong Li could not save that film from its inchoate plot, tedious pacing, and hideous male falsetto Chinese opera performances. It stands as one of only two movies I have never been able to finish, which is saying a lot since movies are generally shorter and easier to bear than, say, slogging through a disagreeable or dull read. (The other film, by the way, is the Russian classic Andrei Rublev - positively nap- inducing.) That said, this film was quite long and slow, making me think the director prefers his stories detailed, riddled with underlying psychological subtext, and generally quite languorous.

The "power-hungry Chinese emperor" Hollywood Video mentions is actually Ying Zheng, the King of Qin who unified China's seven warring states in 221 BCE. Wikipedia says, "For all the tyranny of his autocratic rule, Qin Shi Huang [his imperial title] is still regarded today as some sort of a colossal founding father in Chinese history whose unification of China has endured for more than two millennia." His legacy is a mixed one, vacillating between that of an atrocious tyrant, a view that was particularly popular during eras of heavily Confucian political sway because of his purported disregard for Confucian doctrines, and that of a determined visionary who sought an end to war through the defeat of his enemies. The latter gained favor in the 20th century, particularly under Mao's nationalistic and anti-Confucian regime when he co-opted Zheng's legacy to enhance his own historic imperative. His notoriety has expanded in the West with films such as this and Zhang Yimou's recent success, Hero, and with the archaeological discovery of his burial vault, home to the famed Terracotta Army.

Aside from being immensely educational (I knew none of this before watching this movie - Keven said the history is so foreign to Westerners that this was like learning about the history of people on another planet), I found it entertaining despite its slow pacing. While the Ying Zheng of Hero was contemplative and invincible, this portrayal displayed an unstable, crafty, deadly, passionate, and occasionally awkward king. Gong Li was steadfast and beautiful, but her character's disillusionment created opportunities for some harrowed scenes of grief and rage. Interestingly, the climax of the film - when the emperor and the assassin finally spar - is comic and bizarre, not at all like the epic battle I expected. I also appreciated the conniving political skill and general unhinged quality of the Marquis and the subplot concerning his coup attempt. But ultimately, I this film would test the patience of anyone who bears little interest in Chinese history.

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03:07  

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