The Emperor and the Assassin sets a new standard for quality of production. The story, costumes, sets, music, and performances all have such a powerful authenticity that after watching it, I felt like I had just lived through a two-thousand year old episode of Chinese history. Director Chen Kaige's (Yellow Earth, Temptress Moon) film lives up to its billing and is a worthwhile success (not to mention the most expensive Asian film ever produced).
Set in third century B.C., The Emperor and the Assassin is the story of Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), leader of the Kingdom of Qin, whose goal is to conquer the six other kingdoms of China and merge them into one unified land. To accomplish this objective, he embarks upon a horrific reign of terror and brutality against all who stand between him and his destiny.
In an attempt to aid Zheng's conquering of China, Lady Zhao, (Gong Li) his lover since childhood, devises an intricate fake assassination plot against him, which, when "uncovered," will provide him with a legitimate excuse to invade the neighboring kingdom of Yan, his greatest obstacle to unification. When Zheng betrays her trust and invades her homeland of Zhao killing thousands including innocent children, she turns against him. As part of the original scheme to be in exile in the kingdom of Yan, she encounters Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi), a great warrior and former assassin. They fall madly in love and she attempts to convince him, along with The Prince of Yan, to kill the King of Qin before he becomes Emperor and continues his tyranny.
The story is a bit confusing because so much is lost in the translation from Mandarin, but pay close attention, and you'll be able to follow along. What I found most enjoyable about the film was its character portrayals within the context of a historical deconstruction. From the assassin, Jing Ke, to the power-hungry Ying Zheng, the emotions and reactions are surprisingly humanistic, and I could easily relate, even though the plot takes place two thousand years ago, and is part of a civilization totally different than our own. For example, Jing Ke is an assassin who is able to recognize the wrong in killing through the power of love and rises against King Zheng. Also, Lady Zhao is a woman who, in her naiveté, believed that a benevolent leadership under a united emperor would stop the bloodshed that the people of China had faced for hundreds of years. These endearing characters, most of which are fictional, blend in perfectly with the historical setting and add the much-needed element of passion into the dramatic mix of the story.
The Emperor and the Assassin is not to be missed. It breaks from the typical American mold with its slow developing plot and strenuous length (over two and a half hours), but captures the quality of the finest homegrown products reminiscent of Braveheart or Dances With Wolves. Indulge yourself in an in this epic rendition of a tumultuous episode of ancient Chinese history.
Aka Jing ke ci qin wang.