Sony // 1999 // 161 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // June 12th, 2000
Love, Betrayal, and Political Intrigue 2200 years ago.
Chen Kaige, director of Farewell My Concubine, has delivered a film of such epic proportions, comparisons may not suffice. It would be most easy to compare The Emperor and the Assassin to films such as The Last Emperor, Braveheart, Lawrence of Arabia and a dozen others. But The Emperor and the Assassin is in many ways more ambitious. It chronicles the life of the first Emperor of a unified China, Ying Zheng, as well as those that intimately surrounded him.
Zheng was left one of seven main Kingdoms of China, Qin. He was tasked with unifying the seven Kingdoms by his ancestors. Zheng begins his quest by conquering neighboring Yan, which he does with relative ease. He must next focus his attention on his most powerful opposition, Han. But he must not appear too greedy so he formulates a plan whereby Han will commit the first act of aggression, giving him the moral and political authority to attack and conquer Han.
Zheng sends his beautiful lover Lady Zhao to Han along with Prince Han, pretending she has been exiled for wishing to return to her homeland in another Kingdom, Zhao. Once in Han she is to help the Prince enlist the aide of an assassin who will attempt to kill the King of Qin. But, of course, since this is a Qin plan, Zheng will be ready and will foil the attempt, then attack Han with the righteous indignity of any assassination attempt.
Naturally, as with any perfect plan, things go haywire and all hell breaks loose. We are also treated to several other plot twists involving the Prime Minister of Qin, Lu Buwei, the King of Qin's Mother, and the Marquis who attends to the Queen Mother. Artfully written and beautifully presented, The Emperor and the Assassin surely raises the bar for Chinese Cinema, setting a new standard in the process. This film is an amazing achievement, and is worthy of the outstanding treatment lavished upon it by Columbia TriStar.
The Emperor and the Assassin is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The anamorphic widescreen video is spectacular. The colors are rich and detailed, with very little edge enhancement. The sweeping vistas and panoramic scenery easily convey the beauty of this ancient land, a challenge Chen Kaige handles with much skill. I believed this was of the time and place as its characters. I caught not a single inconsistency in the production that would lead me to believe otherwise (not that I am a strict student of the period). But the thing that struck me most was the cinematography, which somehow captured the beauty of what it must have been like to BE THERE.
The audio portion of the disc is recorded in the original Mandarin Chinese and is presented in Dolby Surround. There is also an optional Spanish language track, likewise in Dolby Surround. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish or French. Naturally, as with every Dolby Surround track, the bottom part of the audible range is hurt substantially by the lack of a distinct 5.1 mix. Certain war scenes with horses trampling through gorgeous fields would no doubt have sounded much more lifelike had a re-mix been included, or better yet, had the audio been originally recorded this way. Alas, it was not to be. Nevertheless, the dialogue was well done, and appeared to be most dynamic, from a whisper to shouting, it was always easily discerned (not that I could tell what was being said or anything).
The story is wonderful, articulate and well written. Filled with twists and turns, the film features many intelligent individuals who understand the ramifications of their actions but choose their paths accordingly. The sense of honor and duty among the ancient Chinese people must have dwarfed that of our time, as I was fascinated by many character motivations and behaviors. The production values of The Emperor and the Assassin were amazing, and these are talked about at length during the commentary track, which features Director Kaige.
The film features Gong Li (Chinese Box, Shanghai Triad, Farewell My Concubine as Lady Zhao. She is stoic and heartfelt in the scenes where she is allowed to let loose. Li Xuejian plays Ying Zheng and gives him a certain manic feel where we are left to wonder whether the man is totally sane or totally insane. A clever warrior who will stop at nothing to acquire his dream of unification, the man echoes several other world leaders down throughout the centuries. Zhang Fengyi (Farewell My Concubine, Temptation of a Monk) plays the assassin Jing Ke beautifully, as a man haunted by his past actions, unwilling to kill again. He is clearly disturbed and tormented by his previous actions and unwilling to undertake them yet again.
I'm not sure what was more sumptuous, the original sets constructed for this effort of the period costumes. Both are amazingly rich with detail and well thought out. This is the most expensive production in Chinese Cinematic history and it shows. Yet, unlike so many overproduced, special effect spectacles of Hollywood, this comes off as Great Moviemaking. I can't wait o pit this film against Michael Bay's vision of Pearl Harbor when that behemoth is released. I would bet my lunch that this film wins hands down -- without so much as breaking a sweat.
My only complaints about this disc are the lack of a 5.1 track and a lack of extras. Yes, the commentary track is very nice and well done -- and it is the most important extra any studio can include on a disc. But, what about detailed, in-depth production notes? What about a multi-page insert booklet? What about deleted scenes? Surely there were boundless possibilities, and this is a movie that deserved for these possibilities to be explored. I was fascinated by these characters (despite knowing the film is only loosely based on historical fact), and intend to find more reading material about them in the near future. Perhaps my appetite might have been satisfied a bit more with some additional extra content. Perhaps not.
The Emperor and the Assassin is a wonderful film that should be explored by every reader of DVD Verdict. I don't care if you don't like foreign films, or subtitled movies. It doesn't matter. If you are a fan of film, you must at least rent this one. If you are a serious student, then just buy it and trust me.
Chen Kaige is thanked by the court for devoting a large chunk of his life to this undertaking. The results are worth that investment. Columbia TriStar is thanked for delivering this disc in a timely fashion and in such a classy manner. Additional extras would have been appreciated, but in no way deter me from recommending this disc most highly. The three principal actors are thanked for creating wonderfully complex characters with real motivations and emotions. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Mandarin)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 161 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track with Director Chen Kaige
* Theatrical Trailers
* Talent Files
* Official Site