The Emperor and the Assassin


The Emperor and the Assassin
©New Wave Co., Beijing Film Studio
Shin Corporation, Le Studio Canal+,
NDF, and Chen Kaige Film.
distribution by Moonlight Films, Holland
photos courtesy of The Publicity Company
Birth of a Nation, Chinese style. Spectacular in another vernacular. The story takes place in 3rd century China BC, during the "Era of Warring States". Seven rival kingdoms were at war during this period and Ying Zheng, the ruler of the kingdom of Qin, finally succeeded in uniting the land into one mighty empire which would leave a lasting legacy that had an enduring effect on future citizens (including certain leaders) by establishing a forceful rule with a heavily authoritarian style. (The Western word for China derives from the territory of this leader, Qin, which is pronounced as Chin.) The method of rule he applied was so forceful that it resulted in several serious assassination attempts on his life. One among them serves as a basis for this film's title and took place shortly before Zheng, King of Qin, achieved total power. Against the breathtaking background of another time and place, the concubine who serves both the emperor-to-be as well as an opposing ruler manipulates herself centrally into a world of love, deception, obsession, passion, power, and treachery. Some things never change.

Concubine Zhao (Gong Li) has been the lover of Zheng (Li Xuejian) since the days when he was prince. Hailing from one of the other kingdoms, she was taken hostage while young in order to prevent dissention or opposition that Zheng might face from the people of her region. Zheng's growing thirst for power and obsession with the thought of ultimate expansion leads Zhao to believe that her home territory may soon find itself in great danger and, to prevent the mass slaughter of her kinsmen, she devises a cunning plan. She proposes to the King that she might gain the trust of the Prince of Yan (Sun Zhou), who, due to his threatening status as a rival, is presently being held as a political hostage in Qin. Achieving this, she will then escape together with him and flee back to his kingdom. There she further intends to convince him of acting with expediency in assassinating Zheng.

Zheng, comprehending that, with the assistance of Zhao doubling as an informant, he could easily thwart the Prince of Yan's assassination plan and publicly reveal his opponent's treachery, becomes fascinated by the tactical complexity of the enterprise. If he were simply to declare war on Yan, the remaining five kingdoms would join forces with Yan against him. If, however, they believed that an assassination attempt had taken place, the tables would turn in quite another direction and all five kingdoms would rally to Qin's side in defense. Then, Yan would be forced to surrender. This procedure would be less destructive and more effective than the alternative possibility of achieving unification, which would entail a direct attack on Yan and the loss of numerous lives. Such a war scenario would most likely result in the five other kingdoms joining the side of Yan against Zheng and would end in forcing him to relinquish what sovereignty he possesses. The king appreciates the extreme cleverness of the concubine's plan.

Zhao has her face scarred with a hot branding iron to facilitate her success in convincing the Prince of Yan that she has solid reason for her vengeful desires. Her intention is to tell him that Zheng has done this awful thing to her. Dedication to the survival of her kinsmen makes her realize that this is a small sacrifice when measured against the bloodshed that would result from a full-scale war.

With her plan under way, Zhao happens to cross the path of the famed assassin Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi) in a restaurant where he attacks and unintentionally kills someone abusing a young child. She intercedes to save Ke's life after this event takes place because, despite his violent nature, she is touched by his concern for the child's safety. This same man turns out to be the person requested by the Prince of Yan to be hired for the assassination, but, once Ke is approached with the proposal, he voices his objection and wishes to have nothing to do with it. He has become a man tormented by his violent past and who no longer has any desires to pursue his old trade. Zhao now finds herself entrusted with the added responsibility of persuading Ke to change his mind and accept the commission.

Other plots are hatching around and within the royal household at the same time, but Zheng usually manages to remove any obstacles placed before him and stay any plots hatching behind his back. One fiercely damaging revelation, however, is made that turns the tables (in a very Shakespearean manner). Once the blood begins to flow, destruction begins to run its rampant path and any promise that Zhao might possibly extract from the uncontrollable Zhang could easily be regarded with suspicion and distrust. The politics of achieving a united nation combined with the lust for absolute power remain uppermost in the king's mind. He shuns neither deceit nor murder nor forced suicide nor live burial if he finds it imperative to reach his ultimate goal of becoming Shihuangdi, the first emperor of Qin.

Director Chen Kaige, whose sensitive hand is already familiar to audiences from "Farewell, My Concubine" and "Temptress Moon", has created an historical film of masterful proportions that engulfs the viewer and which has already managed to garner a technical award at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. His determination to find financing for this epic project finally reached a successful end and the result is not only an impressive work, but also the most expensive Asian film ever made ($15 million). The script, written by Kaige and Wang Peigong (author of "WM"), carries the story fascinatingly through both the cities' hidden quarters and the corridors of power into an unfamiliar world. There are twists and turns at every corner. This complicated plot can, nevertheless, easily be followed as long as your attention remains riveted to the tale. The emotional tumultuousness penetrating the entire story is subtly played by Gong Li, who maintains sufficient tension to captivate the viewer while accomplishing her devious manipulations. Li Xuejian, proclaimed as one of the most popular actors in China, magnificently encompasses the myriad aspects brewing within this multi-faceted ruler of Qin. Zhang Fengyi terrifyingly embodies the killer whose piecemeal revelation of sufferance, endurance, and intelligence reveal that he possesses sensitivities in opposition to his appearance.

During his lifetime, Ying Zheng was a brutal, ruthless ruler whose vision, coupled with megalomania and paranoia, drove him onward armed with a strict code of obedience that never let him hesitate for an moment when deciding to burn books or have scholars buried alive. He was, at the same time, responsible for endless advances in the empire during his reign. He introduced standardized currency, instituted a unified writing system, centralized government, constructed roads and reservoirs, revolutionized agriculture, and had the Great Wall of China built. Aware of his mortality, he also ordered construction of the terra cotta warriors for his final resting-place. In order to do justice to the glory and magnificence prevalent in China at the time of his brutal regime, endless research was done during the eight years of development spent on the production.

Meticulous precision was the order of the day for every aspect of the film. The origins of the country were treated with the respect they demanded by all those involved with the production. In order to reconstruct this moment of history, it was important to get all the details right. Production designer Tu Juhua played a major role in recreating the appropriate atmosphere. The royal palace of Xianyang was reconstructed in its entirety, paying special attention to details as carvings, frescoes and ceremonial vessels. Handan castle was reconstructed for the scene in which it is invaded and destroyed by fire. Reconstruction of the ancient cities of Qin, Yan, Zhao, and Han took place in various regions of China. Painstaking accuracy was taken in reproducing endless items, including swords, thrones, chariots, goblets, and jewelry, as well as musical instruments. One example of expertise and care at work can be seen in the black flag of the Qin kingdom, which was woven and dyed using the same techniques used by the Tibetans over 2,000 years ago. All of this work was done under the coordination of Tu Juhua, who also created the necessary blueprints and drawings. The renowned costume designer Mo Ziaomin spent two and a half years of combined research and work before deciding on his final 400 designs for the production and the result is striking. Zhao Jiping wraps the whole voyage in sweeping music. DP Zhao Fei ("Sweet and Lowdown") has captured this world with both stunning richness and stark reality.

A spectacle voluptuous for the eye, magnificent in detail, and superb in its ability to create an exquisite atmosphere. The one small objection might be with regard to its length (160 minutes). On the other hand, one should be prepared to make allowances for length when considering the extremely complicated plot and the historical perspective in which it must take place.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett