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Peace, power, personal cost. These are three well worn elements of films all too clumsily deemed as ‘epic’ in scope. Yet this is no mawkish Hollywood melodrama but a Chinese movie re-telling a legend that is deserving of a ‘classic’ status all of its own...

Emperor And The Assassin, The
Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian) is a man on a mission. Ever since his accession to the throne of Qin, despite having been born and raised in the Zhao province, he’s been charged with the pre-determined task of unifying China’s seven warring kingdoms into a single state with the noble intention of installing himself as its benevolent royal figurehead. An able warrior, actively leading his troops from the front lines, Ying Zheng is pleased to see the recalcitrant opposing realm of Han fall. With the northern territories secure, Ying Zheng aims to take a back seat from the fighting in an attempt to shore up political support for his valorous quest among his cowering conquered subjects.

No sooner does he turn his attention southwards does Ying Zheng encounter intrigue among his own council, expelling his Prime Minister Lu Buwei (Chen Kaige) for fear of a coup and becoming suspicious of the Marquis (Wang Zhiwen) in his court due to his close relationship with his mother, a member of the royal household perceived as possessing no real power in affairs of state. In addition, at this crucial time Ying Zheng’s headstrong fiancée Lady Zhao (Gong Li) requests to leave the Qin kingdom and break off the couple’s impending nuptials due to the protracted and bloody nature of the unification pursuit of her husband-to-be, despite championing the aim of his endeavours.

Asserting his authority in this uneasy situation, Ying Zheng reiterates the rectitude of his cause. So convinced of his convictions of a ‘single state under the stars’ that, in an effort to minimise the suffering of civilians, not to mention troops, laid waste in bloody battle, Lady Zhao devises a subtle scheme in which she will surreptitiously arrange for an assassination attempt on the life of Ying Zheng to fail so that he may shame the key southern dominion into acceding to his demands, thereby precluding the necessity of armed struggle.

Publicly banished from Qin, Lady Zhao sets about her very private mission. Once in the Han province she stumbles across Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi), a morose drunkard lacking all sense of his former dignity as the highest skilled and most deadly assassin in China. As time passes, Lady Zhao rehabilitates the broken man although she is unable to persuade him of the justification for the mission she is undertaking.

Emperor And The Assassin, The
As Ying Zheng becomes further isolated in the kingdom of Qin, so beset by treachery and intrigue at every step that he seeks absolute acquiescence from the advisors around him and his hopes of a peaceful resolution become ever more sullied by the need to wield absolute power with impunity, Lady Zhao comes to question her loyalty and the catastrophic price of her lover’s destiny.

For those who’ve read the back cover of this DVD but have yet to view the film itself, be warned; Braveheart this is most definitely not. Instead, as perhaps one should infer from the talents of Chen Kaige behind the camera, The Emperor And The Assassin is much more akin to Shakespeare or a Japanese noh play. The pace of the movie is deliberately slow and the narrative is even conspicuously divided into acts. Indeed, it is almost impossible not to draw parallels between this film and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, itself based on King Lear, for the admittedly brief battle scenes are merely the backdrop to an intensely human tragedy involving the central trio of characters. By informing the audience at the beginning of the film that China was indeed unified by Ying Zheng, rather than dampen the narrative, this admission serves to accentuate the doomed nature of Lady Zhao’s duty and her unrequited passion for Jing Ke. Without wishing to provide spoilers here, there are genuine surprises in how the Machiavellian machinations of those jostling for power are played out.

Towards the film’s fateful closing, the interwoven aspirations of all the parties involved become truly tangled, and with each character having discernibly different public and private faces, it’s a plot that requires dedication from its audience. The slow pacing and the episodic structure may well not be to everyone’s taste but, much like Kaige’s own Farewell My Concubine, how rewarding you find this film will be based upon how much commitment is made to it.

With all the artful political manoeuvring behind the scenes, it’s a wonderful testament to Kaige’s skill with actors that the core three characters provide such richly faceted performances; there are no two dimensional cut-out characters here. Li Xejian as Ying Zheng, corrupted absolutely by absolute power, brings a great depth and forsaken humanity to potentially showy role. Zhang Fengyi as the humbled former assassin who has lost his appetite for killing provides a credible transformation in the limited (at least with respect to others) screen time afforded him. The radiant Gong Li is absolutely devastating as Lady Zhao; there’s more than a cursory nod to Princess Diana in her wilful nature that is only too happy to eschew royal protocol in devotion to her fiancée’s objective. Of note too is Wang Zhiwen as the Marquis, effortlessly essaying the outward facetiousness of a courtier and the inner cold calculation of a scheming strategist and a somewhat suprisingly towering turn from Kaige himself as the Prime Minister; not content with being a decidedly good director, the man’s an accomplished actor to boot.

Behind the camera, as per his previous work, Kaige has crafted another intricately detailed movie. Summoning the fiscal resources of five production companies and three years in the making, this is easily his most ambitious project yet: 20,000 costumes, 5,000 extras, awe-inspiring sets. Every penny has been well spent for each of the above components is an integral constituent of the story. Granted, the explicit use of novel-like chapters on screen makes the plot feel more episodic than it really deserves to but the admittedly long duration simply flew by, for me at least.

Emperor And The Assassin, The
The image, anamorphically enhanced at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, is a clean, crisp and sharp affair. Colours are warm, such is Kaige’s palette of predominantly earthy browns, and wonderfully well defined with fantastic levels of detail (just check out the rendering of the intricate patterns used in the film’s costume design).

Black levels are reasonable although they could be a little deeper in the movie’s few dark scenes and shadow detail is just a touch lacking in the city siege sequence. That said, this is one very good transfer from a top notch print (free from grain, dust marks or scratches as should be expected) and it compliments Columbia’s output that such care is given to a non-English language catalogue release. If only other distributors produced DVD releases of this quality for their foreign movies…

Subtitles too are handled with the respect due other aspects of the visual presentation. Digitally created, the subtitles are displayed in an easily legible white font with a faint black outline that makes them lucid among the frequent light brown or beige backgrounds.

Upon receiving the disc, given the recent production of the movie, I was initially a little disappointed that no 5.1 track was included. Expecting bone crunching battle sequences this was something of a stumbling block but as the narrative slowly unravels it’s easy to realise that the Dolby Surround track is quite adequate. As described above, screentime devoted to duelling with dialogue and suspenseful strained silences far outweigh the trio of action set pieces, although all three do employ full use of the available audio format, so it’s unlikely that would significantly add to the audience’s enjoyment of the movie.

Dialogue is relayed with commendable clarity and fidelity, high enough in the mix to capture all the wonderful intonations of the (frequently whispered) Mandarin language without any appreciable hiss.

Emperor And The Assassin, The
Top billing in the slender special features package is the commentary from director Chen Kaige. Conducted in laudably fluent English, Kaige begins rather hesitantly and never really settles into a consistent or concentrated dissection of his movie and you feel that a fellow contributor would greatly enhance the director’s participation. That said, Kaige’s scattershot delivery does throw up some interesting insights concerning the actual palace used for the location shooting of Ying Zheng’s regal abode (you’ll hear a lot about it at various points of the commentary) and the background of the actors portraying the five main characters. Of particular note are Kaige’s thoughts on censorship imposed by the Chinese government based on purely political grounds and his tragic personal recollection political zealotry in denouncing his father in China’s cultural revolution which brings a discernibly sad dimension to Kaige’s portrayal of Lu Buwei and his relationship with his forsaken son.

Brief filmographies of the main players are also included alongside a U.S> made trailer, replete with attendant gravelly voice over that spoils the whole experience by trying to impress upon the audience the The Emperor And The Assassin is merely a Western style romantic drama a la The English Patient with Oriental costume replacing Occidental attire. Upon this evidence, it’s no little wonder that the movie failed to make an impact in America…

The extras are accessed by a series of static menus; functional but simple to navigate.

Emperor And The Assassin, The
Praise must go to Columbia for the outstanding quality of the transfer and, although a 5.1 mix would have been preferable, the audio presentation is fine. While the extras are slight, perhaps unsurprising due to the long duration of the movie, Kaige’s commentary is worth a listen and overall is pleasing to see a foreign arthouse movie given such stature as its lavish nature should suggest.

With The Emperor And The Assassin clocking in at over 2 ½ hours, this is a movie in which patience is required and I suspect that some viewers may not make it to the end. However, I would urge you to stick with it for the convoluted plot threads unravel marvellously well, encapsulated in the denouement of the assassination attempt itself. Not for everyone then, but for those seeking something a little different in their drama diet, this comes highly recommended.