The Emperor and the Assassin

(Jing Ke ci Qin Wang, Chen Kaige, China, 1999)


Films of epic proportions have always loved the architectural styles of antiquity. Huge walls, columns, palaces, arenas, courtyards – all these give instant scale, spectacle and grandeur. They also provide the necessary space to pack in all those massed, costumed extras.

The Russell Crowe hit Gladiator (2000) uses such architectural visual display, with digital enhancements, at the simplest, most immediately impressive level. A far more pretentious film, Julie Taymor’s Shakespeare adaptation Titus (1999), mixes the architectural fixtures of many eras in order to give us a vague, composite vision of a forbidding social order.

Titus gestures towards the kind of historical understanding of space and place that some contemporary Asian filmmakers completely mastered years ago. I’m thinking of movies like Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Hou Hsaio-hsien‘s Flowers of Shanghai (1998) or Shinya Tsukamoto’s Gemini (1999): in these films the complex, shifting power relationships – between masters and servants, prostitutes and their clients, lords and underlings, men and women – are etched in literal lines of force. These lines of force run along corridors and across the sightlines joining rooms and buildings; they are cross-currents of energy that are blocked and then switched around at doorways, stairways, labyrinthine garden paths, precarious junctures of every sort.

Chen Kaige’s superb The Emperor and the Assassin is a very careful, very patiently drawn portrait of how power worked in China, once upon a time, two thousand years ago. The mad dream of Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian) is to unify, and thus control, the seven kingdoms of China. He has a winning partnership with his bride, Lady Zhao (Gong Li); she’s willing to go into exile as part of an elaborate plan to maintain the spell of this King’s power.

But the narrative – told over two hours and forty minutes – soon starts to get away from the King. Chapter titles introduce the complicating manoeuvres and motivations of other players in the game of power, especially the designated assassin, Jing Ke (Zhang Fenhyi). Social control is extremely precarious in this film; its fate rests upon the split-second valencies of a knowing look, a confessional word, or a decisive, bloody move.

At the end of the ’90s, we saw more Asian films in Australian arthouse cinemas than Iranian, Egyptian, Polish or even Italian films. But not enough of the remarkable, vital, innovative work that coming from the great filmmaking talents of Asia, like Hou, Tsai Ming-liang or Wong Kar-wai. We certainly benefited from a major commercial distributor, Columbia TriStar, launching its ‘Silk Screen’ showcase of Asian cinema. This selection played fairly safe, with Zhang Yimou’s gentle romance The Road Home (1999) and the sentimental comedy Shower (1999).

Third up in this series, The Emperor and the Assassin provides a bridge to richer, more bracing and rewarding stuff. It marries those epic qualities of costume drama spectacle and Shakesperean passion and intrigue, with a severe, minutely calibrated sense of cinematic form.

What I like most in Chen Kaige’s work is this play on rhythms and timing, the interplay of sound and silence, the frozen gestures that give way to the ferocious, sudden lunge of a single, deadly sword, or an entire teeming crowd hurling itself forward in unison. Here, the intricacies of political power are traced in a vivid, mobile diagram – and it’s a thrilling, visceral history lesson.

MORE Chen: Killing Me Softly

© Adrian Martin October 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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