June 23, 2008
The Emperor's Shadow
When's the last time you saw an actual Hollywood epic? I mean, when the vistas were vast, and casts of thousands weren't pixels? We're talking David Lean territory, and the only place to find it these days is in China, where the historical epic is alive, and, well, really epical.
The Emperor's Shadow again focuses our attention on Ying Zheng, the king of Qin, protagonist of The Emperor and the Assassin, ostensible good guy in Hero, and first (if temporary) emperor of all of China. A George Washington kind of guy, about whom there's always another inspiring bio-pic waiting to be made. That is, if George Washington were a brilliant, Solomaic, ruthless, and by today's standards, completely sociopathic dictator. With a refined taste in music.
British historical fiction makes for better comparisons. Think Richard III meets A Man for all Seasons, with shades of Hamlet and a Jack the Ripper ending. Wen Jiang does look a bit like a lean Henry 8th. This time around, though, Thomas More is a musician. The soon-to-be emperor-of-everything wants his childhood friend, Gao Jianli (who shows up like Rasputin in all these historical dramas), to compose for him a national anthem. I mean, really, really, really wants him to.
Of course, the king got him to court in the first place by conquering his country and slaughtering everybody he ever knew. So this Thomas More is doing everything he can to get the king to kill him and the king keeps having to come up with good reasons not to, all the while inspiring him create Great Art.
Complicating the king's life is his daughter, a pretty bent nympho dominatrix who would rather not marry the psycho son of Ying Zheng's number one general. I can't comment on the actual facts, but I'm pretty sure history takes a back seat to soap opera and spectacle in this version. Yes, the occasional kingdom falls to armies of millions, but unlike The Assassin and the Emperor, the emphasis is on court intrigues, not that boring nation-building stuff.
Still, every twenty minutes or so you are treated to a scene that makes you sit up and say: Holy Freaking Cow! Nature's violence dwarfs man's while rivers literally run red with blood (for some reason, two thousand year-old war crimes are so much more entertaining). It leaves you wondering if you're supposed to love Ying Zheng or loathe him. It's hard to conclude that director Xiaowen Zhou wants you to loathe him, despite the rivers of blood.
This moral ambivalence lends the film a weight heavier than its substance justifies. After all, Ying Zheng tried so damned hard, and barely lived to realize his vision of a united China when it faded like the morning frost. "It's all about Hearts & Minds," he lectures the neurotic and self-destructive Gao Jianli over and over again. "That's what your anthem should do." Yet it seems to have been a tune he never could quite hear himself, not until his world was laid waste all around him.
The Emperor and the Assassin