Monday, May 23, 2016

Film Review: The Emperor and the Assassin

"The Emperor and the Assassin"
**** (out of ****)

Chen Kaige's "The Emperor and the Assassin" (1999) never received its proper due with Western movie critics (sheep). The critics largely ignored it upon its initial theatrical release. According to the website Rotten Tomatoes - a film review aggregator, there are 37 total reviews. That's not a lot.

Many American critics were never able to see beyond Mr. Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine" (1993), which was the great Chinese director's international breakout film. It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. For several movie critics Mr. Kaige never made a movie as good or better than "Concubine". Throughout Mr. Kaige's career he would never make a movie which garnered the same amount of critical praise as "Concubine" again, at least in America.

Of course that is the movie critics' loss. Mr. Kaige is a great filmmaker who has directed multiple masterpieces. "The Emperor and the Assassin" is one of them. It originally made my list of the ten best films of 1999, placed in the number three spot, and after a second look at it, the movie holds up.

Mr. Kaige weaves fact and fiction into his epic story taking place during the reign of the King of Qin, Ying Zheng, between 247 - 220 BC and his efforts to unify China, which had been divided into seven states, including Qin. In a story reported by the British Broadcast Corporation, while covering the Cannes Film Festival that year, where "The Emperor and the Assassin" was shown in competition, Mr. Kaige believed his movie could also serve as a commentary on current events saying "if you see what's happening in Yugoslavia today you understand why I wanted to make this movie."

The three central characters in "The Emperor and the Assassin" are Ying Zheng, a king who sees it as his moral responsibility to unify China. It is a promise he must keep to his ancestors. Then there is Lady Zhao (Gong Li) the woman he has loved since a child. She believes in the king's vision because Lady Zhao thinks the king is a good man and truly wants what is best for the people of China. The king will honestly protect the people. And finally a retired assassin, Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi). In his younger days he was notorious. Like an aging gun fighter the sins of his past have caught up to him. He realizes the amount of blood he has on his hands and vows to change his ways.

When I first saw "The Emperor and the Assassin" I thought it was Ying Zheng's story. Watching the movie again I now believe Lady Zhao is the glue holding everything together. She is caught between these two men. She is the only character, of the three, that interacts with both of them. Lady Zhao is the character that gains the audiences' sympathy.

There is also much for audiences to relate to in the Jing Ke character. The audience is first introduced to him when he is given an assignment to murder a sword maker and his family. Jing Ke does what he is paid to do with the exception of the sword maker's young blind daughter whom Jing Ke takes mercy upon. The daughter is fully aware of what Jing Ke has done to her family and asks that she too be murdered. As a young blind girl, all alone, it will be difficult for her to live. She will end up a beggar. Out of pity the daughter asks Jing Ke kill her. The encounter has a lasting effect on Jing Ke who promises to never kill again.

In a strange twist of fate however Lady Zhao is sent to the state of Yan by Ying Zheng to persuade the prince of Yan to hire an assassin to murder the king before the city of Yan is invade by the Qin army. This plot is conceived by both Ying Zheng and Lady Zhao whom believe once word travels that the prince of Yan is looking to hire an assassin it will give the Ying Zheng the justification to invade Yan. The assassin both the prince and Lady Zhao seek to find is Jing Ke.

"The Emperor and the Assassin" was released a year before Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) reached American audiences which led to a wave of martial art themed movies which also led to mainstream audiences discovering the work of Zhang Yimou, director of films such as "Hero" (2004), which also takes place during this same time period, and "House of Flying Daggers" (2004). Mr. Kaige's movie however lacks the gravity defying swordplay seen in "Crouching Tiger" with characters flying in the air and the spectacular choreographed fight scenes. "The Emperor and the Assassin" focuses more on drama and establishing characters. It may be the reason why Mr. Kaige's movie sometimes is an after thought for American audiences when they think of this genre and why the movie wasn't a box-office success in America the way "Crouching Tiger" was. The movie went on to win 10 Academy Award nominations whereas "The Emperor and the Assassin" was shut out.

Watching "The Emperor and the Assassin" one sees a story revolving around themes of redemption, honor, the thirst for power, corruption and love. All of this is told behind a majestic landscape shot by cinematographer Fei Zhao, who has worked with Woody Allen and Zhang Yimou. We see wide empty spaces, all the land Ying Zheng hopes to control which is sometimes contrasted with the same empty landscape covered with dead bodies.

If there is one weak spot to "The Emperor and the Assassin" it is the editing. The movie could have been re-edited as the consequence of events is not always laid out in the most dramatic order. Sometimes characters are left out for large majorities of the plot, The movie works because the story is interesting and the audience becomes invested emotionally in the characters. At nearly two hours and 40 minutes the movie could have also been shortened.

But why leave you with the impression "The Emperor and the Assassin" is not worth watching? This is a movie which deserves a wider audience. It is one of Mr. Kaige's great movies. Beautifully acted, stunning shot and emotionally told it was one of the best movies released in 1999. Former Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Wilmington wrote in his review "The Emperor and the Assassin" was even one of the great epics of the 1990s.

Mr. Kaige would return to the martial arts genre a few year later with the release of "The Promise" (2006), it would follow in the tradition of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and Zhang Yimou's films. Some would consider the move a sell-out on Mr. Kaige's part. I disagree and declared "The Promise" one of the best movies of 2006.

"The Emperor and the Assassin" tells us a fascinating story from a time in history most Americans will be unfamiliar with. And so we see the thirst for power always existed. Lands have always been conquered by mad rulers. Maps have been drawn and redrawn. "The Emperor and the Assassin" gives us names and faces however and puts its audience under its lyrical spell.