Sumptuously mounted but emotionally remote, Chen Kaige’s historical costumer “The Emperor and the Assassin” is a string of striking set pieces hung on a dramatically shaky clothesline. Long-in-the-works, much-fraught movie — about united China’s first leader, the man sent to murder him and the woman they both love — is undeniably impressive on a tech level. Yet it fails to build a dramatic head of steam worthy of its subject matter and production values, with characters making little headway against a fragmented storyline and the sheer weight of the visuals. Continued reaction to its Cannes competition screening will be crucial in deciding whether this will be a commercial thumbs-down, like Chen’s previous “Temptress Moon,” or an arthouse hit, like “Farewell My Concubine.” Midrange business looks likeliest.
There’s plenty riding on the picture, apart from the $15 million-or-so budget, largely raised from Japanese and European sources. Chen, whose career had its share of ups and downs even in the ’80s, hasn’t had a hit since “Concubine” co-won the Palme d’Or in ’93, and “Assassin” has all the signs of a high-stakes roll of the dice to re-establish himself as the international, big-budget emperor of Chinese cinema.
In fact, though the pic is undeniably superior to “Temptress,” it again underlines Chen’s strengths and weaknesses: He essentially remains a gifted miniaturist whose passion for detail is not matched by a similar emotional fervor or grasp of longer dramatic arcs.
None of his big-budget movies during the past decade matches the emotional intensity of his smaller ’80s pics “Yellow Earth” and “King of the Children.” If “Assassin” succeeds on any non-tech level, it’s more in the realm of historical allegory or general lesson about power and its abuse; on a simple human level, as a love story centered on a woman torn between two men, it hardly gets off the starting blocks.
Last fall, a 176-minute version test-screened in Japan to less than rapturous response (pic quickly died on subsequent release). After Chen made a reported 300-or-so changes, a 160-minute cut preemed, with much hoopla, in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Oct. 8 to decidedly mixed response again. Present version, running the same length but reportedly totally reworked, is in fact Chen’s fourth try, after a 140-minute version shown only privately to foreign distribs.
Story is set during the late 3rd century B.C., near the end of the so-called Warring States period, when China was a collection of seven rival kingdoms (and in Europe, Hannibal was girding his loins for war with Rome). Pic starts with a bang (and the first of many explanatory captions) as Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), head of Qin, invades the neighboring state of Han and parks 250,000 troops outside the capital, threatening to destroy it.
Already half-crazed by his dream — a mandate from heaven, he says — of forging one nation out of several states, Ying outlines a utopian scenario of unification, in which the country will then be divided into provinces under good leaders, peace and prosperity will flourish and the barbarians will be held at bay outside a Great Wall. (Today, Ying is best known for his gigantic mausoleum, containing terra cotta armies, unearthed in Xi’an.)
The downside is that huge numbers of people will have to die first. First to feel the cutting edge of his ambition are the people of Han who, despite the protestations of Ying’s elderly prime minister (Chen Kaige, in a sonorous, stately perf), are crushed in 230 B.C.
Next on Ying’s shopping list is the state of Yan — at which point things become increasingly complicated, not least because its head (Sun Zhou, helmer of “Heartstrings”) was once a childhood friend of Ying. To give Ying a good excuse to invade the place, his longtime lover and confidante, Lady Zhao (Gong Li), hatches the idea of being branded a traitor, fleeing to Yan and hiring a local assassin to kill Ying. When the plot is uncovered, Ying will then be free to destroy Yan.
Everything initially goes according to plan. The only problem is that the man Zhao picks, Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi), has a past: Ever since he caused the suicide of a young blind girl (Zhou Xun, in a touching cameo) during a hit, he’s become disgusted with himself and his profession, and is more than a little mentally unstable. Jing refuses the assignment, but Zhao persists: As a patsy in her plan, he’s just right.
But events back in Qin change the whole scenario. In one of the pic’s most impressive sequences, making potent use of sound, silence and visuals, the ambitious Marquis Changxin (Wang Zhiwen), lover of Queen Mother (Gu Yongfei), attempts a coup, fails and when captured reveals a secret about Ying’s parentage that sends the latter off the rails — and heading straight for the state of Zhao with mass slaughter on his mind. Story arcs further from there.
All this is, believe it or not, a drastic simplification of a plot that unwinds in boggling detail through five chapter headings — “The King of Qin,” “The Assassin,” “The Children,” “Lady Zhao,” “The Emperor and the Assassin” — clearly designed to bring a sense of structure to the storyline and its multitude of cross-loyalties.
To get the most from the picture, viewers need to stay alert, especially in the early stages, not only to follow the plot but also to memorize each of the main characters’ backgrounds: Four of the leads were either raised as hostages or born in the state of Zhao (a crucial ingredient in their mixed loyalties or emotional confusion), and the relationship between the queen mother and the marquis is delineated in a manner bound to be confusing to Western viewers.
It’s here that the script basically falls down. Faced with few hard facts about the era, Chen and scripter Wang Peigong (a noted playwright) have come up with a clever story but overgild the lily to an extent that the dynamics between the three leads get lost in the detail.
Chen seems not to have learned the lesson of the great historical epics of cinema: simplification at all costs and the rapid establishment of clear conflicts to carry auds through the battles, political hanky-panky and long running time.
A much more dramatically powerful movie on the same subject, Zhou Xiaowen’s “The Emperor’s Shadow” (1996), kept the focus tight on three leads and used limited spectacle, a restricted color palette, and a sense of massiveness and barbarity in the production design to enhance the central drama and its message about how absolute power corrupts.
In “Assassin,” the sets are bigger, the battles more spectacular, and the art direction more detailed and lavish; but rarely (except in the king’s map room and some striking hydraulics in his unification room) do they enhance or comment on the drama. They’re there to dazzle the eyes, period.
The dialogue, too, rarely has any special flavor. It is largely routine, with the thesps giving it occasional resonance through performances — especially by the two male leads — that often approach caricature.
As Zhao, Gong has the right wardrobe and bearing but hardly touches the heart of her conflicted character; Zhang, as the assassin, is most impressive when saying little, especially in sequences that draw on conventions of swordplay cinema to portray his skills; and Li, in the central role of Ying, is a commanding figure onscreen but too one note in his obsession. (Compare what Jiang Wen made of the same character in “Shadow” and the difference is clear.)
Of the rest, Gu’s commanding Queen Mother is most impressive in a smallish role.
Still, despite these faults, the movie never drags, is given a measure of adrenaline by Zhao Jiping’s accessible score (with choirs, brass and percussion motoring the action sequences) and moves at a pleasant clip for the first two hours before an unseemly haste overtakes the picture in the “Lady Zhao” chapter.
Ace lenser Zhao Fei’s compositions are always eye-catching, and his play with light and amber tones is frequently seductive, though the decision not to shoot in widescreen seems regrettable.