The Emperor and the Assassin
Directed by Chen Kaige
Starring Gong Li
Chinese (Mandarin) with subtitles
Destiny! Destiny! There’s no escaping destiny! Ying Zhen has a destiny — unite the seven warring states of China into one great empire, as the benevolent ruler of all under the heavens. Just to keep on the ball, an annoying retainer constantly reminds him of this great duty. This retainer is about the only person not subject to instant death in this epic, and like Jar Jar Binks, an exception is in order. A huge army, good leaders, and the finest bronze available makes Qin invincible, and so the Emperor. Han, home of his betrothed falls next with Yan up to bat and Zhoa on deck. Zhen’s lifelong girlfriend and concubine, Lady Zhao (Gong Li), longs to return to Zhao, but instead brands her porcelain face to convince the Prince of Yan to send an assassin to kill Zhen so he has a pretext to invade Yan. Still with me? Good, now the complicated part starts.
The top sword for hire in Yan, Jing Ke, just quit the business after a young girl he spared (she was part of a group package), knifes herself in front of him. The director likes this scene, and it appears 5 or so times, just so you don’t lose sight of his motivation. As with any 2 1/2 hour flick, this is a real possibility. While Lady Zhao works on Ke, Zhen discovers that Mom’s best friend and court fool Marquis got a little too friendly, and he wasn’t really foolish after all. Now there are two 5 year old pretenders to the Qin throne, and by the way, dad wasn’t really from Qin, but that vague resemblance to his discredited prime minister isn’t just coinky-dink. Oooh boy, there’s a campaign issue. Only one real choice here — kill everyone in China. On screen. In detail. And don’t forget the little ones. Let’s go — it’s a destiny, and you don’t skip out on destiny.
If you like early Chinese court politics, or if you like wonderful, big screen foreign art film cinematography, or if your Mandarin is rusty, jump on this. Somewhere before the fourth epic battle, and not too soon before the “Bury the Children Alive” scene, you will lose count of the bodies and wonder when the assassin will get off his Pacifist butt and either kill the Emperor, kill Lady Z, kill the Prince of Yan, or kill himself. We all need closure, and there are still a few people left breathing.