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'The Emperor and the Assassin':
A Pearl In a Deep Sea

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2000


    'The Emperor and the Assassin' Gong Li plays Lady Zhao in "The Emperor and the Assassin."
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Chen Kaige's "The Emperor and the Assassin" is a stunner--as big and messy as a war, as small and perfect as a diamond. It recalls the very best of the great Chinese director's two perfect masters, Akira Kurosawa and David Lean. It's a film filled with spectacle that is at its heart intimate, intelligent and unique.

The movie is set some centuries before the birth of Christ, when China was seven separate kingdoms. It tells the story of the first unifier of that vast land, the emperor Ying Zheng, who will have to fight six wars to bring everything under the banner of his Kingdom of Qin.

Of course the path to true love of empire never did run smooth. The movie watches in particular his careful stratagems, and how these plans as often as not come apart under the influence of pure human passion. Even a powerful man like Ying is unable to rule the heart.

Ying (Li Xuejian) is not merely a military destroyer (though the movie opens on the battlefield and frequently returns there); he's also a chess master. Thus he hatches a plan to first justify his invasion of the next kingdom, Yan, and at the same time make his conquest of all the kingdoms seem inevitable.

His plot is to seemingly banish his lover, beautiful Lady Zhao (the radiant Gong Li), who in exile in Yan will recruit an assassin with the support of the Yan rulers. But Zhao will secretly betray the assassin, discrediting the Yan and providing a pretext for invasion; at the same time, Ying's incredible escape from death will mark him as a man of destiny.

A brief moment here to consider how rulers always work in the same way. I thought of the two super-murderers of the 20th century and how they used similar ruses to achieve power: Stalin set up a stooge named Kirov for assassination, then executed his murderer and used the event to launch his purges and consolidate power. Hitler, some believed, staged the Reichstag fire to justify his own assumption of dictatorial powers and launch the world on the most horrifying adventure in death it had seen since . . . well, since the historic Ying united the seven kingdoms of China by violence and guile.

But Chen is only partially interested in the hugeness of the story and the plot; at its heart is a more intimate tale. For once Zhao has fled, Ying knows no restraints on his behavior. Enraged over a secret truth about his boyhood, he wages a war of destruction against any who stand against him and in so doing destroys Zhao's home town.

At that point, she determines to go ahead with the assassination plan--for real. Then she makes an even more powerful calculation: She falls in love with the man she chooses to kill Ying--Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi), now a drunk but still a formidable swordsman. They plot in earnest what has already been plotted in jest.

In its way, it's as neat as any film noir from the '40s, a small drama of three people once connected by love and now connected by violence, fated to interconnect in ways both astonishing and expressive. Yet it's not small drama: It's the largest movie ever shot in China, with as many as 10,000 extras in some of the battle scenes. Think of it as "Murder, My Sweet" effortlessly lodged in the center of "Gone With the Wind." Or don't think of it at all: Simply enjoy its spectacle and its intimacy.

THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN (161 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle) is rated R for much violence, some of it directed against children.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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