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IN SHORT: An epic of Shakespearean proportions [Rated [R], 161 minutes]
Though we see a good number of 'em, there aren't a lot of foreign films that get the write up on these pages mainly because there isn't a lot of demand for 'em, outside of Hong Kong action flicks. The older I get, the more I find myself drawn into the elaborate plots and intricate political machinations typical of Shakespeare's political plays. So here on the screen before me is the most expensive film to be produced in China, with enough intrigue to stock a dim sum cart. At 161 minutes, that's a lot of stuff to munch.
Distribution is limited so, in case you're checking this out prior to rental, know that the story is divided into five chapters. Each takes its time to introduce the main characters and give the history necessary to develop the plot. Don't let the length put you off, you can hit pause. In the theater where I saw it, by the time Chapter Five hit, sitting was becoming a bit of a strain.
As if to put us Westerners in our proper place, The Emperor and the Assassin is set 230 years before the start of the first (Christian) Millennium. At its start, the seven Kingdoms of China are all that is left of the hundreds that existed when Unification Wars began 550 years earlier; 780 B.C. if you're doing the math. It was custom in those kingdoms for hostages to be held, each insuring the maintenance of a political status quo. Ying Zheng, King of Qin, (Li Xuejian) who had been held hostage by the Kingdom of Zhao, is determined to end the Unification War. It is his duty to his Ancestors to do so.
First to fall is the Kingdom of Han, which puts Ying Zheng in a bit of a pickle. Zhao would be an easy target but devotion to his lover, Lady Zhao (Gong Li), gets in the way of that. To attack the Kingdom of Yan would unite the remaining kingdoms against him, with a force that could destroy Qin. As the best offense is a good defense, Lady Zhao comes up with a plan to ingratiate herself with the Prince of Yan (Sun Zhou), a hostage in Qin, and convince the Prince to hire an assassin to kill Ying Zheng. Knowing that the attack was coming, Ying Zheng could take steps to ensure its failure, and the attack would give him reason to take down Yan. The Prince is returned to his home and the Lady accompanies him as hostage.
While the plan forms, two different coup attempts occur in Qin, one involving the Prime Minister (Chen Kaige), the other involving the effeminate Marquis Changxin (Wang Zhiwen), consort of the Queen Mother. While successful at quashing both, a dark secret is uncovered that forces Ying Zheng, who finds he likes the power that comes with the throne, to break his promise to Lady Zhao and destroy her homeland.
Then Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi), the assassin, comes to call.
I've left out a good hunk of political intrigue, as well as the very interesting backstory of Jing Ke and how he came to be, lest I be accused of giving away the store. As in the best Shakespeare, a triumphant king finds that victory is a hollow thing if you have no one left to share it with. How Ying Zheng descends from righteous ruler to despicable, bloodthirsty tyrant is a good story, carefully laid out and clear to follow. The settings of the film are impressive -- face it, we don't get to see much of mainland China, regardless of the timeframe -- as are the battle sequences. There is even one torture sequence that is so suggestive that Cranky could hear the folks around him sucking in their breath, in fear of seeing the outcome.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Emperor and the Assassin, he would have paid...
That's pay per view level for domestic releases. It's length makes The Emperor and the Assassin a bit much but, as indicated above, it's built for tape rental.
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