The Emperor and the Assassin 荆轲刺秦王 (Jing ke ci qin wang) [1998] • China

EPIC. Long, slow, a little melodramatically meandering but never boring. This is a great film to watch before Hero to get a more standard historical telling of the story of China's first Emperor. It's not stuffy and stilted the way many more formal Chinese historical films can be. Most of the characters are a little wacky. I put off watching this for a long time because I'm not a fan of what I thought it was going to be: wuxia with little plot and a lot of fighting. It's not that at all. It's got palace intrigue, battle plans, and real history behind it.

There is a well-written and very informative review of the film over at Illuminated Lantern. It discusses many of the scenes and compares them to historical document. It can be read without spoiling the film because this isn't a film built on surprises. We know the story for the most part but it helps, especially western viewers who aren't familiar with the source material, to have some grasp of the impact of what is portrayed in the film in terms of shaping Chinese history.

Gong Li is fabulous, but not really the star of the film. Xuejian Li, as the Emperor, balances unhinged with forthright and hits every note in between. Fengyi Zhang goes from badass assassin to homeless bum who's given up assassinating to badass assassin again and then to someone we're not sure of, all convincing. Zhiwen Wang almost steals the show as the eunuch lover of the queen who has a plan of his own. He seems almost a little too contemporary but Kaige has assembled a film that allows for him. This is more than a standard period piece costume drama. It's history done well and it's very entertaining. Most appealing to me is my perception that this film was made for a Chinese audience, not a western, festival-circuit one.

A recent Red Cliff marathon got me in the mood for EPIC so I indulged and was quite happy—not to mention it features Zhou Xun, unquestionably my favorite Chinese actress, in a small but significant role. It's hard not to see this as a parallel to state sanctioned historiography of Mao, but no matter. Chinese unity is paramount, there will be blood.

Director: Kaige Chen
Starring: Xuejian Li, Fengyi Zhang, Gong Li, Zhou Sun, Zhiwen Wang, Chen Kaige

Official site
Illuminated Lantern

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