Chen Kaige’s “The Emperor and the Assassin” is an epic-length film with some breathtakingly filmed epic-sized battles and palace scenes … yet it all boils down to a simple, non-epic story of love, loyalty and power.
It is 221 B.C., and Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), king of the Chinese kingdom of Qin, has been charged by his ancestors with the duty of unifying all seven kingdoms of China. He takes this seriously, figuring the best way to do it is to conquer them. To that end, he invades the kingdom of Han, with the intention of moving on to Zhao and Yan next.
Ying Zheng’s prime minister, Lu Buwei (Chen Kaige), objects to these tactics, and is summarily fired. Ying Zheng’s mother (Gu Yongfei), who is having a secret affair with the oleaginous Marquis (Wang Zhiwen), objects (she’s a Zhao native) but is quiet about it, as is Lady Zhao (Gong Li) herself, with whom Ying Zheng grew up and who is occasionally his lover.
Lady Zhao, seeking to help Ying fulfill his destiny with as little bloodshed as possible, suggests a rather Shakespearean plan: She’ll go to Yan, where the prince (Sun Zhou) is openly furious at Ying’s plans and gain his trust. Then, she’ll convince him to send an assassin to kill Ying. Ying will be ready, of course, and will not be assassinated — but the attempt will be political justification for his invasion of Yan; the prince might even give up voluntarily, once he sees his error in trying to kill Ying.
Lady Zhao gets in good with the prince and they seek out a professional hitman. Yan’s best assassin, Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi), however, is a weary, aging man, racked with guilt over his life of killing for hire. It’s not the best time to ask a man to kill an emperor, and Jing Ke refuses to do it, which lands him in prison. Lady Zhao, seeing his inner goodness, begins to fall in love with him and doubt her loyalty to Ying Zheng. (The assassin, it turns out, is less monstrous than the emperor.) The emperor’s terrifying, malicious invasion of Lady Zhao’s homeland does little to help her change her mind.
A film that is 160 minutes long has its work cut out for it, needing to justify its length to audiences who prefer their movies around 2 hours. “The Emperor and the Assassin” just about succeeds at that, introducing subplots that may seem like tangents, but which all add to the ongoing theme of Ying Zheng’s ruthlessness and Machiavellian attitude: He must unite China even if it means killing everyone in it.
There are surprises and revelations that keep the movie interesting, in addition to building its themes; indeed, the film doesn’t feel the least bit padded.
One senses almost immediately that this will be a tragedy — there’s a vague feeling of doom that increases as the film goes on — and it truly is. It’s a masterpiece of story-telling, marked by impeccable acting and fine direction, a film that is every bit worthy of the time it takes to watch it, as it will stay in your mind for a long time after it’s over.
A (2 hrs., 40 min.; Mandarin with English subtitles; )