Set in 221 BC, The Emperor and the Assassin tells of Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian) and his obsession to unite seven Chinese kingdoms and become the first Emperor of China. The film mixes spectacular battle scenes with court intrigue, counterpointed by the King’s complex relationship with the only woman he has truly loved, the Lady Zhao (Gong Li). From protocol-ridden palaces to wide open grasslands, this is a visually striking film, both beautiful and at the same time burdened with the horrors of the period.
Though this was the most expensive film ever made in China, director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) nevertheless retains a tight reign on character and psychology, recalling Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) and Kagemusha (1980). The cast, particularly the two leads, are magnificent and both production design and score are first rate. While the unfolding story has similar appeal to Gladiator and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it can be as confusing and jarringly edited as the original (pre-director’s cut) version of The Last Emperor (1987), and for the same reason–despite its 154 minutes–the film was cut by approximately 30 minutes prior to release. The full version may eventually reveal a masterpiece, though in its present form it is still an exceptionally powerful and compelling drama.
— from amazon.co.uk
As Hollywood, and increasingly Britain, specialises more and more in the utterly obvious, it is a blessed relief to enter not only a quite different world but one which is filmed quite differently as well. The grand historical epics which engage us (or not) normally include battles which, for maximum impact (the director believes), have to last an age and have blood spilling everywhere. In “The Emperor and the Assassin”, battles are briefer and far less bloody, yet the severe violence of this, to us, unknown era is still captured by director Chen Kaige who also made “Farewell My Concubine”. Chen achieves surprise by shifting from one scene to another in ways you just can’t predict, but this originality never once threatens the coherence of the film.
The director’s one mistake is his fondness for pretty pictures which are either harnessed to powerful, surging drama (often communicating the instability of China in the third century BC) or to moments of inertia which mean Chen should have moved much more quickly on to the next scene.
A tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, “The Emperor and the Assassin” centres on the antics of King Ying Zheng whose decency soon gives way to violence as he tries to subjugate the other Chinese states, even going so far as to plan – with his concubine – a phoney assassination attempt on his own life so as to give himself a raison d’être. Becoming known for the fairly trivial fact that it is the priciest picture ever made in Asia, “The Emperor and the Assassin” in fact gives us striking insights into an unfamiliar period of history, thus reminding us just how little of the world most films cover.
— Michael Thomson (BBCi – Films)
Extra Director’s commentary track in English is included