THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN

Where once there were some 550 dynastic kingdoms in China, now only seven remain. Most have been eliminated; knocked off in a kind of Imperial Chinese version of “Highlander.” The rest have repeatedly merged into a series of ever larger and more convoluted kingdoms. Kinda like Time-Warner-AOL. The kingdom of Qin, under the determined leadership of Emperor Ying Zheng, is at the forefront of these hostile takeovers. Zheng’s a nominal idealist at first, thanks in no small part to the walking conscience that is his cherished Lady Zhao. Naively convinced that Zheng actually intends to follow though on his flowery words of peace once he’s united China under his leadership, the Lady Zhao agrees to a rather convoluted scheme. With her beloved needing a pretext to attack the stubborn kingdom of Yan, she has her face branded as a sign of Zheng’s rejection and travels to the stalwart kingdom to convince Yan’s fiery prince that she seeks revenge on Zheng. Her mission is to hire a Yan assassin to ambush Zheng, whom she’d tip off in advance, thus giving him his needed pretext to attack. Absent his lady, however, an increasingly brutal and bloodthirsty Zheng becomes a veritable “Ends Justifies the Means” poster boy…while the Lady Zhao becomes smitten with the quiet dignity of Jing Ke, the highly skilled but reformed assassin she’s chosen. Needless to say, even a unified China isn’t big enough for both an emperor and his would-be assassin. This grandiose saga from Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige was a perfect antidote to the total immersion in Park City’s gritty no-frills world of independent filmmaking. An intense and sprawling spectacle, this film was nonetheless blessedly minus the self-important characteristics usually found in Hollywood “event” pictures. Also unlike most Hollywood epics, “The Emperor and the Assassin” refuses to assign its largish cast of characters either white or black hats. For that matter, simply trying to get a handle on this strange culture and, hell, just plain figuring out who’s who — you say “Han,” I say “Yan.” Let’s call the whole thing off! — makes the first few moments of this picture as overwhelming as they are intimidating. But if the viewer hangs in there, the swirling intrigue in this volatile broth provides more tension than a year’s worth of American soaps. While there’s no doubt some elementary understanding of Imperial China would be a plus here, it’s not a necessity. For one thing, Kaige doles out just enough info to keep non-experts afloat. For another, in spite of this film’s epic sweep, complete with its meticulous recreations of early Chinese court life and its brutal, awesomely staged battle scenes, “The Emperor and the Assassin” is at its core, a tale of love, sacrifice and honor; one that’s as universal as it is timeless.




Posted on March 3, 2000 in Reviews by
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