US Release: Sony Classics Pictures
Starring: Gong Li, Zhang Fengyi, Li Zuejian
Directed by Chen Kaige
Written by Wang Peigong and Chen Kaige
In Mandarin with sub-titles
The Emperor and the Assassin is the story of the First Emperor of China, Ch'in Shih Huang-ti, the woman he loves, and the complex plot to "assassinate" him which she plans with him so that he can rise from being the ruler of only one of seven warring kingdoms to become Emperor and name the unified whole for his own state: Ch'in (spelled Qin in Pinyin).
An amateur expert on Chinese history, I deliberately saw this film with someone who knows almost nothing about early Chinese history to see if the average American movie-goer could understand the complex issues involved in the unification of China. The answer: a resounding, "YES!" Viewers who go to The Emperor and the Assassin do not need to be experts on China or the Chinese language; director Chen Kaige and his co-writer Wang Peigong have gone to great lengths to have everything which might be unfamiliar to non-Chinese audiences explained either by the characters themselves or by narration. The result is one of the best films to come from China in many years.
For this reviewer, however, part of the difficulty of reviewing the film is that the subtitles are in Pinyin, the common Romanized spelling system used in mainland China, while most American histories of the period covered are written in the Wade-Giles system (the one which uses the apostrophes after the first couple of letters of some words). So, to make this review understandable to readers of both Pinyin and to readers of the Wade-Giles system, I will have to do a little research to find the Wade-Giles equivalents of the Pinyin spellings used in The Emperor and the Assassin. ("Ch'in" or "Qin," for example, is also spelled "Chin" in the so-called Yale system, which spells Chinese words as they are pronounced in American English. Confused? Don't worry, these are just technicalities and not knowing them will not prevent any viewers from enjoying The Emperor and the Assassin.)
While I am busy playing diligent scholar, however, my readers can have my review in a nutshell: The Emperor and the Assassin is an excellent epic adventure movie and a fine dramatic romance and thriller, too.
The exotic deviltry of the period is best exemplified by the ridiculous figure of the Marquis Changxin (played by Wang Zhiwen), apparently a clown kept to amuse the Queen Mother (played by Gu Yongfei) and torment the old Prime Minister, Lu Buwei (played by Chen Kaige); in fact, the Marquis knows secrets which could bring down the royal house of Ch'in (Qin) forever, and stop the unification of the Empire. Constantly humiliated by King Ying Zheng (played by Li Xuejian), the Marquis will stop at nothing to destroy the King.
Another plotter is Ch'in's hostage, the Prince of Yan (played by Sun Zhou), who plots with the King's beloved Lady Zhao (played by Gong Li) to engage the services of the great assassin Jing Ke (played by Zhang Fengyi). There is only one problem to the plan to assassinate Ying Zheng using the man whom the King expects to try to kill him: the master assassin Jing Ke himself, horrified by the last massacre he did, has retired and would rather be executed than kill another person. Unfortunately, the complicated plan worked out by Lady Zhao and King Ying Zheng will only work if it looks real, and it will only look real if Yan sends its best assassin -- a man who refuses to do the job!
Drawn into these schemes is Ying Zheng's ever-loyal General Fan Yuqi (played by Lu Xiaohe), a man of great honesty and integrity whose duty is to destroy everyone who opposes the Ch'in plan to unify the Empire. As Ying Zheng's plans continue and he discovers that his is not the only plot, General Fan faces a terrible decision: does he remain loyal to his king, who is clearly becoming a brutal madman, or does he desert to Yan and try to stop the reign of bloody terrror which Ying Zheng unleashes when he discovers the other plots against him -- the ones which he and Lady Zhao have not organized?
The gorgeous splendor of The Emperor and the Assassin is apparent from the very beginning, when an on-screen image of molten metal being cast into a spear-head is transformed into a vertical stroke for the Chinese characters used to display the opening credits: every word has a stroke of burning metal in it, a token of the fire and sword which King Ying Zheng intends to use to unify the Empire. Whole villages and fortresses were built for this production for the sole purpose of filming their destruction by Ying Zheng. Costume Designer Mo Xiaomin, Production Designer Tu Juhua, and Cinematographer Zhao Fei successfully recreate the beauty of ancient China, a beauty which is brutally destroyed in kingdom after kingdom by Ying Zheng's invincible army, while director Chen's work is as excellent as that displayed in his earlier international successes, Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon..
The Emperor and the Assassin is a world-class movie.
With the rise in theater ticket prices and the growing international audience of our page, our old NW2: Not Worth $2 to W8: Worth $8 rating scale has become less useful than previously, so, in line with the scale used by the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) we have adopted a scale of 1 star to 10 stars, with "1 Star" being a VERY bad movie, and "10 Stars" being a movie classic. Our On-Line Reviewer, however, has gone where IMDb has never gone before: he has added a score of Zero for those movies which are so bad that they are not even good "camp" -- movies so bad that not even "Mystery Science Theater 3000" could could make them worth watching.
On this scale, anything rated "7 Stars" or above is worth the cost of a theater ticket, "8 Stars" is worth standing in line to buy a ticket, "9 Stars" is worth standing in line in a driving rain rainstorm of killer heatwave to buy a ticket, and "10 Stars" is a movie worth driving hundreds of miles to go see -- at least in Dr. Shea's own opinion. Accordingly,
We've mentioned previously that we have an international audience. Now EuroSeek™ has made it official. After only being listed with Euroseek™ since 10 April 1999, we have received more than 46,000 "hits," so that . . .
Euroseek™ is in the process of changing their software (which will enable people to pass freely from our GeoCities pages (currently being held hostage by the evil Yahoos) to our new site here on Tripod. As their upgrading proceeds, the CoolSites counter may not always be visible on this page, but, Euroseek™ has consolidated the various classes of web pages and . . . OURS IS THE 38th MOST POPULAR EUROSEEK™ COOLSITES PAGE -- OF ALL TYPES -- IN THE WORLD! As mentioned elsewhere on our site, we now have visitors from at least 23 countries, and about 16% of our visitors return at least four times. (We're not bragging about this, mind you, we're explaining why it takes us so long to mirror fan pages from geoCities captivity to Tripod freedom -- we have a lot of e-mail from around the world to go through every day.)
We confidently assert that our web site is most definitely and emphatically “a work of recognized stature” under Title 17 of the United States Code!