May 26, 2008
The Emperor and the Assassin
The Emperor and the Assassin is epic in both length and subject matter. The film takes almost three hours to tell the story of the emperor Ying Zheng and his battles to unite the six kingdoms of China in the 3rd century B.C. At the time, the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, it's an effort that could not be duplicated by Hollywood for ten times that. The grand sweep of palaces and battlefields (not sets, the real thing), thousands of extras (and a sparing use of mattes here and there) provides for the kind of stunning panoramas that I suspect loses much on the lowly television screen.
It starts out as Henry V and turns into Richard III as the emperor goes increasingly off his rocker and is driven to use all means to achieve his ends. It's not hard to read in political allusions to Mao, and one scene is awfully reminiscent of Tiananmen Square. On the other hand, it also caters to the present regime's unification ideology as a divine mandate.
The title comes from a plan hatched by Ying Zheng and his consort, Lady Zhao, to create a pretext for an invasion of a neighboring kingdom by staging an assassination attempt. But that's only one of the plots in this tangled web. You'd need a scorecard to keep track of who's double-crossing who, and whose allegiances are where, and who everybody is related to. As the emperor grows increasingly ruthless and paranoid, Lady Zhao seems to abandon the pretext and would very much like to see him dead, though her motives are hard to read throughout. She chooses her assassin, Jing Ke, and then falls in love with him, but this isn't exactly clear either. Is she setting him up, and does he know he is being set up?
I don't think the allusions to Richard III are accidental, such as the murder of two children who could contend for the throne. By the end, Ying Zheng has become quite the bloody tyrant, he violence and the body count grow a bit numbing, and the plot proves ultimately anticlimactic. Sort as if Richard (or Macbeth) ended with him taking power, and then a brief postscript filled in the rest. Which is how this movie ends. Again, I suspect the problem is the lack of historical context for we uninformed westerners. The postscript tells us that Ying Zheng did consolidate the kingdoms of China, but then only a decade later the Qin were overthrown by the Han, who established the first true dynasty.
Ying Zheng was the guy entombed with the thousands of terra cotta soldiers. Makes sense after watching this movie.
The Emperor's Shadow