The Emperor and the Assassin Review

In 221 BC, the king of Qin, King Ying Zhang, made it his personal ambition to unify the 7 warring states of China. By conquering the other states he believes that he can bring peace to all of China after years of internal conflict. To set about achieving this aim, he gives the appearance of exiling his mistress, Lady Zhao, who will enlist an assassin from the neighbouring state of Yan to send against him. Forewarned, he will be able to defeat the assassin and have a pretext to invade his most powerful enemy, placing him in a stronger position to achieve his ambition and be the first Emperor of China.

Set in ancient China, The Emperor and the Assassin is an historical drama on an epic scale that, despite its grandness, applies equal importance to the development and examination of characters as it does to providing a fabulous spectacle. As a drama, its closest comparison would be to Shakespearean drama, in its use of historical events to examine the corrupting influence of power and ambition over human nature and altruistic ideals. All this is wrapped up in a web of political intrigue, family drama, royal scandal and ultimately, tragedy - so I don’t make the Shakespeare comparison lightly.

Cinematically, it has much in common with Kurosawa’s Ran. Like Ran it is also a unique and expensive film that could never have been made in the Hollywood studio system without serious compromise. Kurosawa depended on the independent financial support of the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Stephen Speilberg to make his later films and The Emperor and the Assassin could not have been made either but for the unlimited budget Chen Kaige received from a private investor. The construction of a real palace – not a studio set, a real palace 5-times larger than the real Forbidden City in Beijing – and the making of 20,000 historically accurate costumes could never have been cost-justified by Hollywood studio accountants. So, does the film live up to the huge amount of money thrown at it? Fortunately the answer there is a resounding, yes.

There is plenty of drama to engage the viewer. The first 40 minutes may be difficult, as characters seem to have private faces and public faces, so it is difficult to understand their real motivations. There is no spoon-feeding here – we are dealing with complex and multi-faceted individuals - but as the story falls into place and the characters become more readable, the epic story unfolds with a marvellous sense of drama.

The King of Qin has a noble goal, a political vision, but his desire to achieve this overwhelms the humanistic side of his nature and he becomes corrupted by a personal desire for revenge – massacring thousands of men, women and children to achieve his goal. Seeing the king change from the man she once knew to an increasingly unpredictable and brutal tyrant, Lady Zhao (Gong Li) knows that Jing Ke, the assassin she has found and fallen in love with, must now succeed and kill the king. An impossible task, since the king is expecting his arrival. This is where the drama and tension lies and it is effectively conveyed under Chen Kaige’s skillful direction.

Gong Li (Raise The Red Lantern, Temptress Moon) is a luminous presence in the film. Her performance, her whole presence and understanding of her character give an epic spectacle a much-needed emotional depth and quality. It is possibly her finest role on screen to date. But it is unfair to single out one person. Li Xuejian (Shanghai Triad) gives the performance of a lifetime as the King of Qin, rising to the majesty of the role, totally consumed with his ambition – making a larger-than-life historical character entirely human. Zhang Fengyi (Farewell My Concubine) performs marvellously in the role of Jing Ke, the assassin.

The image has a misty, sepia quality like an aged document (Chen had the impression that the air must have been different 2000 years ago and wanted to convey this idea) – but the picture is crystal clear with a palette of muted brown and grey colours, so that when bright colour is used, it draws the eye. The cinematography by Zhao Fei (who worked with Zhang Yimou on the beautiful Raise The Red Lantern and is currently wasting his talent on Woody Allen’s recent unexceptional output) is outstanding. There is only the occasional dust-spot visible, but nothing to spoil the gorgeous lighting and photography. One problem on this disk that I have never seen before on a DVD, is a barely perceptible jerk in the image that gives the impression of the film skipping. This happens quite often and can become very irritating when noticed, so depending on your tolerance of this, it could be seen as a major flaw in an otherwise superb anamorphic transfer.

The Mandarin soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Pro Logic. A great deal of attention has been applied to sound effects and the Pro Logic surrounds are surprisingly effective without ever really impressing. An English dub is also provided, which you really want to avoid if possible, as it tries to lip-sync as closely as possible to the Chinese speech patterns and consequently fails to convince. English subtitles are a good size and clear and readable. They are a translation of the Mandarin script and not dub-titles (ie. they differ from the spoken English dub).

There is little in the way of extras on the disk. Menus are ordinary and static. A trailer is included with a dreadful voice-over – the usual "In a time of war... one man would make a difference..." drivel. Trailers are included for other Sony Picture Classics films and talent files are basic. The director’s commentary is therefore a pleasant surprise. Chen Kaige gives a wonderful commentary in quite fluent English on all aspects of the film. He talks about financing the movie, directing the actors and his admiration for the people involved. He is also remarkably frank about his own personal motivations for making the film and taking on an acting role as the Prime Minister in the film. The commentary is one of the best I have heard for a recent film.

R1 v R2 comparison
The Region 1 release is almost identical to the Region 2. The R1 however contains a Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Pro Logic dub instead of the English dub and has Spanish and French subtitles in addition to the English subtitles. The subtitles on the R1 are smaller and a subtle yellow colour that doesn’t glare against the picture. There is little difference in the picture quality, although the jerking movements don’t appear to be quite as frequent as on the R2 release. They are visible, but I haven’t seen any other review of the R1 DVD that has noticed this problem, so I can only assume that the problem isn’t that noticeable to everyone.

During the commentary, as he looks at the epic battle scenes and incredible sets (no CGI was used in this film), Chen Kaige sometimes stops in awe himself at the film he has made here. He has good reason to be. This is superb cinema on a grand scale. It entertains and has an important message about the nature of man’s relation to power and ambition that is as relevant now as it was 2,000 years ago. This is an exceptionally good film and raises the stakes for Zhang Yimou’s martial-arts action-film treatment of the same material in the forthcoming Hero.

A comprehensive look at Chen Kaige's work on DVD can be read here.

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Last updated: 31/05/2018 20:49:21

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