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EMPEROR & THE ASSASSIN, THE

SYNOPSIS:
In the third century BC, the king of Qin, Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), dreams of uniting the seven warring states of China into one empire, ridding the people of war and hunger. In his path is the Kingdom of Yan. The woman he has loved since childhood, Lady Zhao (Gong Li), devises a fake assassination plan so that Zhang can have a legitimate reason for attacking Yan. In the time she is absent (plotting), Ying Zheng loses his good intentions (power corrupts) and Lady Zhao falls in love with the intended assassin Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi). To make matters worse, Zhang also discovers the shattering truth about his ancestry. As he storms into Yan with massacring troops, his brutality turns Lady Zhao against him.

"There was only one Kurosawa and try as he may Chen Kaige falls short of the standards for historical epics set by the late Japanese master. The comparison is inevitable and entirely appropriate: this is pure Kurosawa territory we’re entering. There is a great story to be told here - Ying Zheng became China’s first Emperor, his tomb guarded by the famous terracotta warriors - but Kaige’s failure to tell a coherent story leaves basic questions unanswered and confusion where there should be compelling drama. As impressive as the look and scale of production is you’ll probably spend more time wondering who is actually doing what to whom as the plotting grows increasingly difficult to follow. Many audiences will also find it difficult to click into the performance style. Kaige makes little concession to western dramatic conventions, presenting the drama as operatic and highly emotive which will further distance those unused to traditional Asian performance. That would hardly matter if it weren’t so hard to figure out exactly what’s going on. On the plus side there is of course Gong Li. Few can command the screen and our attention so comprehensively and her presence is almost enough to justify the price of admission. At 161 minutes The Emperor and the Assassin becomes something of a slog by the end. As fine a filmmaker as Chen Kaige is, it seems this scale of production was simply beyond his chops and although he leaves us with some memorable sights he’s left the story behind."
Richard Kuipers

"Chen Kaige has made only six feature films over a sixteen year period but his place in the history of 'modern' Chinese cinema is assured. He achieved his biggest success in 1993 when Farewell My Concubine, a bitter-sweet love story set against the tumultuous political and social changes which shaped China from 1925 to 1977, tied with The Piano to win the Golden Palm at Cannes. The Emperor and the Assassin is Kaige's seventh film and, at a cost of around $20 million, the most expensive Asian production to date. Like Kurosawa's Ran, Bertolucci's The Last Emperor and even Farewell My Concubine, the film has all the requisite accoutrements befitting a sprawling historical epic but, as the aforementioned films demonstrated, the breadth and depth of any epic's sweep can only be measured by the psychological complexity and political agenda guiding its frontline players. To that end, with the story's more graphic aspects kept off-camera, Kaige's film plays more like an intense character study rather than the bloody spectacle it ostensibly is. From an acting point of view, Gong Li and Zhang Fengyi (who essayed key roles in Kaige's Concubine) both weigh in with outstanding internalised performances, while Li Xuejian chews the scenery with his near hysterical turn as the bedeviled King. Sun Zhou, Lu Xiaohe and even Kaige himself are also solid in peripheral roles. Clocking in at a daunting 160 minutes, The Emperor and the Assassin is a rousing, rewarding history lesson from a filmmaker at the top of his game."
Leo Cameron

"Sitting somewhere between Western and Asian sensibilities of filmmaking, The Emperor and The Assassin is a profoundly ambitious historical epic that is frustratingly close to succeeding . . . but. And the buts take the form of too many little flaws, small inconsistencies, minor misjudgments and fractured storytelling. The film tackles a historically important story for China, and a complex one; even Chen Kiage’s awesome talents are buckled by its demands, although not in the spectacle department. The large scale warring footage is unequalled since the great epics of Hollywood (and Kurosawa) but the knitting together of all that history with the intimate stories of the characters is laboured, often jumpy and holey. Perhaps the weakest point of the film is its central character, the King of Qi, played by Li Xuejian in perfectly acceptable Chinese ‘large size’ style. This contrasts with Gong Li and even Zhang Fengyi in the other two key roles, creating uneasy discord in styles that dogs the film’s emotional momentum. It is spectacular in parts, and fascinating as a cultural and historic insight: it certainly poses the question of the end justifying the means. It also (depressingly) illustrates that the human condition is not just global, but seemingly unchanging since 220 BC. Oh dear."
Andrew L. Urban

"If, like me, you think 'two hours and forty minutes, ancient China, warriors, yuk no way', ignore all your instincts and get yourself to the nearest cinema to see this stunning piece of work. Operatic in its sweep, Chen Kaige's The Emperor and The Assassin is a breathtaking film in every respect. In scope it out DeMilles DeMille. Visually it is sumptuous and moving in virtually every frame. Yet somehow Chen (Yellow Earth, Farewell My Concubine) elicits poignancy amid the massive spectacle. And massive it is. The most expensive Asian film ever made, it is gobsmacking in its sweep: the sets, the costumes, the extras - whoosh! But it is also masterful filmmaking. An absolute joy. Within this visual bombardment, the sheer brutality is often difficult to watch. Chen has given us a masterful study of power, love, and everything in between. Balancing the big battles with the beautifully observed moments of the individual, The Emperor and The Assassin also gives us flawless performances from the entire principal cast. It is a true ensemble piece, led by the brilliant Gong Li, Zhang Fengyi, and Li Xuejian. Wang Zhiwen goes out on a limb with his effeminate Marquis Changxin but pulls it off as a needed balance to the power hungry Ying Zhen. There are moments of beauty and brutality in this film that will stay with you for a very long time. See it."
Lee Gough

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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 2
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 2

TRAILER

EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN (MA)
(China)

CAST: Gong Li, Zhang Fengyi, Li Xuejian, Wang Zhiwen, Chen Kaige, Lu Xiaohe, Ding Haifeng, Zhao Benshan, Pan Changjiang, Zhou Xun

PRODUCERS: Chen Kaige, Hsu Feng, Iseki Satoru, Shirley Kao Kao

DIRECTOR: Chen Kaige

SCRIPT: Chen Kaige, Wang Peigong

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Zhao Fei

EDITOR: Zhou Xinxia

MUSIC: Zhao Jiping

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Lin Qi, Tu Juhua

RUNNING TIME: 161 min

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Columbia TriStar

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 5, 2000

VIDEO DISTRUBUTOR: Col Tristar Home Video

VIDEO RELEASE: April 11, 2001







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