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The Boston Phoenix Disunity Rules

How the East was one

By Peter Keough

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  The story had the potential to be the Chinese Godfather and then some. Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), a Chinese king of the third century BC, was a visionary driven to unite the bloodily bellicose Six Kingdoms into one empire. He succeeded and became China's first emperor (he also built the Great Wall and burned all the books, as Jorge Luis Borges notes in his eerie essay "The Wall and the Books"), but in the process he degenerated into a despot, a model of the yin and yang of benevolent unity and ruthless tyranny that has bedeviled the country ever since, as epitomized in modern times by Mao Zedong.

It seemed a natural subject for Chen Kaige, who has demonstrated a rapturous eye for the interplay between art and power, between individual fate and historical necessity, in such films as Farewell, My Concubine. (In fact, another version of this story, Zhou Xiaowen's flawed and flaky The Emperor's Shadow, which was released here last year, seems more akin to Chen in its emphasis on the artist.) Like that of his subject, however, Chen's grand ambition falters -- maybe it was the presence of half the People's Army on the set as extras. Visually stunning (cinematographer Zhao Fei achieves both the intimate and the epic, his sweeping Kurosawa-like vistas and Eisensteinian compositions balanced by lyrical tenderness) and propelled by towering, if eccentric, performances, The Emperor and the Assassin is part Grand Opera and part Oprah, part Shakespeare and part shake-and-bake.

Divided into five parts like an Elizabethan tragedy, it opens with the first of many initially thrilling and eventually tiresome battle scenes. A bold warrior avenges a general's mortal wounding by the enemy. The general asks for the hero's name and is awed to learn that it is Ying Zheng, the king of Qin, himself. The king has no problem with the primal anonymity of the battlefield; it's the ambiguity of peace and the court that is bewildering.

For Chen, as well. Many powers lurk behind the throne of Qin, and the director isn't a big help in keeping things straight. There's the vaguely unwholesome queen mother (Gu Yongfei), whose epicene consort the marquis (Wang Zhiwen) is the butt of the king's crude pranks but seems to have something sinister up his voluminous sleeve. There's the imperious prime minister Lu Buwei (coyly played by Chen himself), who seems to hold sway over the king and defies him openly. The hotheaded prince of Yan (Sun Zhou) has obvious reasons to be hostile; he's a hostage from a neighboring, threatened kingdom. Only Princess Zhao (Gong Li) offers the king unambivalent support; his childhood sweetheart when he and his father and mother were exiled, she provides him with a steady, if faint, moral light.

In other words, she's a cliché, or would be had Gong not put in an off-kilter performance. Smiling and laughing inappropriately when she confronts the king with his contradictions between ideals and means, she comes off as a spoiled woman who discovers her soul even as her beloved loses his. Li Xuejian as the king also brings a certain nihilistic lunacy to his downfall, veering from Hamlet-like play to the high dudgeon of Lear. No wonder the princess is seduced by his dream and concocts a plot whereby she will pretend to denounce him, travel with the prince of Yan back to the latter's kingdom, and recruit and send back an assassin to kill the king, thus giving Ying Zheng the pretext to attack his greatest enemy.

The scenario is rich in intrigue and irony but oddly irrelevant to the film's most powerful passages. They occur in the climactic third part, in which the sibilant marquis orchestrates a palace revolt that is lost in the sheer, stony vastness of the palace, exposes the king's Oedipus-like past, and exits laughing and ennobled. It's a tough act to follow, and Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi), the reformed assassin, isn't quite equal to the task. A master swordsman, he's introduced at the height of his profession, wiping out a family for a client only to be stopped short when the last victim proves to be a pathetic blind girl. Doing penance as an impoverished sandal peddler, he's hunted down by the princess, whereupon they fall in love. Jing Ke is the unspoiled alter ego of Ying Zheng, and the film stumbles toward its final, John Woo-like showdown.

Perhaps it's fitting that Chen's rendition of the life of the man whose goal was unification fails to achieve unity itself. The Emperor and the Assassin offers some of the most brilliant setpieces to be seen on the screen these days, moments of dramatic confrontation and visual poetry that are staggering. Like the Six Kingdoms, they rebel against the unifying vision and emerge discordant and triumphant.

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