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The Emperor and the Assassin

Director: Chen Kaige
Cast: Gong Li, Li Xuejian, Zhang Fengyi, Sun Zhou, Lu Xiaohe

(Sony Pictures Classics; 1999)

Melodrama in History's Clothing

The Emperor and the Assassin, the latest film from Chinese director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) is another wonderful-looking period film, with an epic budget and running time, and a sizable cast of historical (and fictional) figures. The director has said that he took a “somewhat Shakespearean approach to history,” and that what “excited” him the most were the characters in the story. This signals that not only will “history” be told through the (tragic) actions of a few personalities—a technique often used by William Shakespeare—but also means that the film is really about the relationships among the principal characters. Moreover, in this film, the protagonists are also involved in a romantic triangle: at its core, The Emperor and the Assassin is, like many films of the so-called Chinese Fifth Generation, a melodrama.


This lengthy and complicated film begins in China during the third century BC, as the King of Quin, Yang Zheng (Li Xuejian) dearly loves Lady Zhao (Gong Li, seemingly omnipresent in Chinese cinema that makes it to the States). As a ruler, he wants to unite the seven kingdoms into one and be, in his own word, a “benevolent” ruler. To achieve this goal, however, he must vanquish the other six kingdoms by force. This unification will, crucially for the King’s way of thinking, solidify the crumbling relationship between him and Lady Zhao: she is about to leave him altogether when the King tearfully proclaims his love and outlines his ambitious plans. Wanting to help lead China to peace, Lady Zhao, like Lady Macbeth without the malice, figures out a way to attack another kingdom, Yan, without declaring unprovoked war. She will convince Dan, the Prince of Yan (Sun Zhou) to hire an assassin from Yan to kill the King. Then King Yang Zheng can attack and claim another kingdom and appear invincible and righteous to his people, by foiling the assassin.


Lady Zhao proves her devotion by having her face branded, so no one will suspect she is working for the King. With a (cute) scar on her cheek she sets out and finds one of those trained killers who dispense death quickly and cinematically: Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi, excellent at looking haunted). He has given up his profession after the suicide of a young blind girl and now does anything possible to avoid violence. As one can expect, Lady Zhao is instantly drawn to Jing Ke, and wants to know why he looks so haunted. Soon she is in love with him and they are both under pressure to move forward with the fake assassination attempt. Meanwhile, Yang Zheng becomes increasingly ruthless, and after he starts executing children, Lady Zhao and Jing Ke decide to attempt a genuine assassination.


The triangle of these lovers and their intertwining lives (in the midst of much palace intrigue and regular doses of grandly staged battlefield violence) is the center of the film. A center of romantic relationships is a trait Kaige’s film shares the other films of the Fifth Generation (the first group of filmmakers to graduate from the newly reopened Bejing Film Academy in 1982, including Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhauang). In 1987, the Chinese government demanded more “accessible” films. The Fifth Generation brilliantly turned this mandate to their advantage, using the popular form of melodrama to attract a diverse audience, but more importantly, to ensure any audience, so that their films would be released. Within these melodramas, Kaige and other filmmakers criticize present Chinese leaders and government actions. For Chinese and international audiences, the films have the attraction of being Chinese and filmed in China—a country most people outside of it know little about. As well, the films’ stories of adultery (Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou) or family perseverance (also his To Live) are readily understandable for audiences around the world, because melodrama is rooted in human emotions, rather than focused on specific cultural traits.


In The Emperor and the Assassin, melodrama abounds. In addition to the major triangle, a second romantic subplot supplies intrigue and revenge motives. Even inside his own palace, Yang Zheng has problems, as the Marquis Changxin (Wang Zhiwen) schemes to take over the kingdom. The Marquis is presented as deceitful and a threat to the King’s goals, as well as his family’s integrity (he’s having an affair with the King’s mother [Gu Yongfei]). But the Marquis, no less than the King himself, appears to act out of his love for a woman and is therefore as worthy of the audience’s understanding as the King. The implication is that everyone has his or her reasons for betraying their loved ones.


Still, the King’s betrayals have the greatest consequences. As in Macbeth, a man’s ambition (and his crumbling relationship to his lover) results in the loss of many lives. And yet, Kaige and co-screenwriter Wang Peigong tell a historical tale with few central characters. While humanizing the past, this technique also makes the terrifying implication that a handful of relationships influence the lives of millions to an incredible degree.


The film expresses this idea effectively, while remaining focused on the lovers at its center. This makes Kaige’s Macbeth variation a very different film from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s film Throne of Blood, which is full of violent displays, and like the majority of Kurosawa’s oeuvre, has little interest in romantic plots. Kaige’s film, by contrast, features energetic battle scenes (shot by Zaho Fei), which are more correctly seen as reflections of the turmoil in the relationship between the King and Lady Zhao than as strictly factual. It is clear that Kaige and his collaborators are telling a romantic, rather than centrally historic, tragedy.


Though the films clearly have different intentions, The Emperor and the Assassin is the equal of Throne of Blood with regard to spectacle. Tu Juhua’s production design is costly and impressive looking, as are Mo Xiaomin’s costumes. Every frame demonstrates the cost of the film and frequent long shots insist that the viewer acknowledge the size of the production. Of particular note is the Xianyang Palace, wholly reconstructed for the film so impressively that it now operates as a theme park.


Despite (or perhaps because of) the extensive creativity on display, for this viewer, The Emperor and the Assassin seems curiously uninvolving. One moment might illustrate what I mean. Late in the film, various characters curse the King with the same phrase, “Damn you!” When Lady Zhao (literally) stumbles over a mass grave of children, discovering that the King has committed a heinous crime and broken his oath to her, she seriously wishes him dead. A close up of Lady Zhao shows her cursing the King as others have, as dramatic music swells. This is textbook “big moment,” but as Gong Li parts her mildly chapped lips, there is no real anger in her words or the shot’s composition. The camera is not close enough and the music not loud enough.


In the past, Kaige has shown himself to be more than capable of creating the sense of identification I’m suggesting. Farewell My Concubine constantly mixes the personal and political in striking ways (the moment that stays with me is when Cheng Dieyi [“Douzi”] is arrested for cooperating with the Japanese within half a minute of Juxian’s [Gong Li] announcement that she has miscarried.) The Emperor and the Assassin could use similar moments of overripe emotion. It leaves one with the feeling of missed opportunities.

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