Review by Kye Leung
Unlike the other Hollywood film about a gladiator in an ancient Rome, this story is set in ancient China about a king who fights to unify China, his lover and the plot to send an assassin to kill the king. You might've missed the film when it was in theaters earlier in the year but now it's available on video. Directed by Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, Temptress Moon) Emperor and the Assassin is set during the Warring States period (403 B.C.E.-221 B.C.E.) when seven kingdoms emerged vying for power. The film is about King Ying Zheng (played by Li Xuejian, Blue Kite, Shanghai Triad) of Qin who has a personal vendetta to conquer the other six kingdoms but is torn between his love for Lady Zhao (Gong Li) and his duties as king. Ying Zheng's cruelty as king propels his lover to conspire with Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi) to assassinate the king.
The historical King Ying Zheng of Qin eventually conquered the other six kingdoms and unified the country. More commonly known as Qin Shi Huang or the First Emperor, he built a massive tomb guarded by life size terra cotta statues near present-day Xian. He is known for his cruelty. Hundreds of thousands of laborers were forced to work in building palaces and the Great Wall. He was also responsible for the book burnings, an attempt to eradicate the histories of the other states except for Qin. During Ying Zheng's lifetime there would be three assassination attempts, one of the assassins being Jing Ke.
it is commendable that Chen Kaige was able to bring a Chinese historical epic to American theaters. Born in Beijing in 1952, Kaige joined the Red Guards when the Cultural Revolution was happening. He was sent to the countryside to "learn from the people" and spent three years there. Kaige's weakness in his films is that they have a tendency to promote feudal and bourgeois nostalgia. Unlike his contemporaries Zhang Yimou (To Live, Story of Qiu Ju) and Tian Zhuangzhuang (Blue Kite) that films has a peasant/working-class perspective, Kaige's on the other hand have had his main characters as gangster and opera singer in his other films.
Kaige's highly acclaimed Farewell My Concubine was about an opera singer who becomes part of the rising bourgeoisie after the collapse of the Manchu dynasty and how the cultural revolution ultimately took away his opera, family and friends. It indirectly attacks the Cultural Revolution but it also attacks the feudal Manchu monarchy as well. The other Kaige film American viewers may be familiar with is Temptress Moon. In that film, we follow the story of a boy who escapes from the family of his sister and joins the underworld in Shanghai. As he grows up, he is sent back to seduce the female head of a rich landlord family. The problem with this is that it romanticizes the bourgeois and underworld lifestyle of the residents in Shanghai and the main characters are a rich landlord owner and a gangster, not very politically "class-correct" films. In Emperor and the Assassin this is no different as the character King Ying Zheng spout ruling class rhetoric such as bringing peace to the common people by conquering the other states.
But then again maybe I shouldn't criticize Kaige too much because after all the Cultural Revolution is 35 years behind us and we live in a period of monopoly capitalism whose interest has been to denounce whatever positive gains the socialist experiment made. I did enjoy the film because personally I feel we need to combat Eurocentrism in the media. I was impressed by the attention to detail of the costumes and armour in the film. The designer for the film had spent over 2 years to research as accurate as possible China in 250 B.C.E. If it's the weekend and you're at the video store with no selection in mind, give Emperor and the Assassin a try.