Now, The First Emperor

Posted: February 18, 2000

You may not have heard of Ying Zheng, so-called "Caesar of China." Nor might you be familiar with his achievements, which include unifying six feuding feudal kingdoms, centralizing the government and becoming China's first emperor, in 221 B.C. Almost surely you don't know that he silenced his critics by burying scholars alive and burning every book in the empire. Yet you know him by his most enduring monument: The Great Wall.

Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin, a gorgeous, gory epic, is a blow-your-mind masterpiece about the emperor who ruled more than 2,000 years ago. It is as urgent as today's news and the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner. Ying Zheng, warrior king (played by Li Xuejian), not only has both a mother and a mistress who betray him, he's not entirely sure who his father is. His uncertainties about his dynastic claims and his need to destroy anyone who might know the secret of his paternity drive his bloodthirsty rage.

Not only does Kaige, celebrated director of Farewell My Concubine, himself play the crucial role as Lu Buwei, the prime minister dismissed by the man who would be emperor, as a filmmaker he demonstrates that he belongs in the company of Akira Kurosawa and David Lean.

Working with the gifted cinematographer Zhao Fei (responsible for the burnished-copper visuals of Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown), Kaige keeps the camera moving at a gallop and his characters in sharp focus. His is the most intimate of panoramic epics.

For The Emperor and the Assassin is a romantic triangle, with Ying Zheng's voluptuous mistress, Lady Zhao (legendary beauty and bewitching actress Gong Li), the pivotal figure, turning against her bloodthirsty lover and commissioning the master assassin Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi) to eliminate him. This is not as simple as it sounds, as the killer-for-hire has retired, and is as committed to nonviolence as Ying Zheng is committed to violence. Through the character of Lady Zhao, Kaige carefully counts the human lives sacrificed so that a nation can be consolidated under one man's rule.

Although its filmmaker would strenuously deny the parallel, it's hard not to see the saga of Ying Zheng, who unified China no matter the human toll, as a precursor to that of Mao, who unified feuding forces through similarly bloody, brutal and repressive means.

While the Mao parallel gives more immediacy to the story, no knowledge of Chinese history past or present is required before one is caught up in the film's web of tangled morality and allegiances. A movie like The Emperor and the Assassin comes along maybe once in a generation.

THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN * * * *

Produced by Han Sanping, Shirley Kao and Satoru Iseki; directed by Chen Kaige; written by Wang Peigong and Chen Kaige; photography by Zhao Fei; music by Zhao Jiping; distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. In Mandarin, with English subtitles.

Running time: 2 hours, 41 mins.

Lady Zhao.................. Gong Li

Jing Ke.................... Zhang Fengyi

Ying Zheng, King of Qin.... Li Xuejian

Queen Mother............... Gu Yongfei

Lu Buwei................... Chen Kaige

Parent's guide: R (violence, often extreme)

Showing at: Ritz Five, Ritz Sixteen/NJ

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