Emperor and the Assassin, The
China 1999
Directed by Chen Kaige.

A sweeping historical epic by Chen Kaige, who as usual can't stop himself from inserting Gong Li into the proceedings.

The Emperor and the Assassin retells one of the most famous tales in Chinese history -- Jing Ke, the assassin, and his failed attempt to take the life of the First Emperor.

This is a sweeping, epic story, which perhaps goes without saying -- inevitably, any film which attempts to chronicle the life of the First Emperor becomes necessarily epic. It took three years to complete, and it seems director Chen Kaige enlisted the help of the entire country of China to populate the film. In fact, he did use actual Chinese army troops in several massive battle scenes that are simply incredible to see. It bears keeping in mind that no CGI effects were used to render the thousands of troops on display in some of the shots -- they are all really there.

The Emperor and the Assassin focuses on the events immediately prior to King Zheng's ascention to Emperor. It begins with the destruction of Han, an act that neither the Prime Minister of Qin, Lu Buwei (played by the director Chen Kaige), nor the Marquis Lao Ai, much approve of, for fear that their own power would dissolve when the other States are no more. Lu Buwei recommends that the Qin army does not destroy the Han capital, however Li Si recommends otherwise, and King Zheng (Li Xuejian) rather dramatically agrees with Li Si. He commands his generals to crush Han, and so begins an unstoppable flow of events which leads to the fall of Lao Ai and Lu Buwei, the destruction of the States, and a desperate assassination attempt. With this one decision, there can be no turning back.

The King also has a lover, Lady Zhao (Gong Li), who is more than tired of palace life. She dreams of returning to Zhao, but King Zheng is filled with a noble purpose -- to unite all the states, and end the constant warfare. She is captivated by the integrity of his vision, and agrees to a scheme by which they may conquer Yan with a minimum of bloodshed, and still be made to look like the good guys -- she will convince Prince Yan to send an assassin to kill the King. When the plot is uncovered, Qin can march on Yan and the other States will not get involved in the conflict. In this way, Qin can consolidate its position among the States.

She and the Prince of Yan discover Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi), the assassin, whom they feel would be perfect for their plan. But the assassin has hung up his sword, has no taste for killing anymore. And while Lady Zhao is trying to convince him to take up the task, something else happens. She grows to respect his integrity, while far away in Qin King Zheng is rapidly losing his. When he sends his troops on a vicious onslaught of Zhao, the Lady's homeland, she begins to see her former lover with different eyes.

In The Emperor and the Assassin, what matters most, to most of the people, is not power, not love, not honor; but children. Whether to protect them or to kill them, children play a pivotal role in the lives of each of the main characters. For Jing Ke, it is the senseless death of a blind girl that causes him to lose his ability to kill. And when Lady Zhao first sees him on the street, he is nothing more than a sandal-peddler. He sees a street urchin being viciously punished by some cooks at an inn, and allows them to humiliate him in exchange for their promise to let the child go -- even though the child is unknown to Jing Ke, and means nothing to him. He will not strike a child, to the extent that he is willing to allow the child to kill him, rather than raise a sword to strike back.

The Marquis, Lao Ai, also has a soft spot for children -- namely, his own. He has two children which he loves dearly, only trouble is, they are his and the Queen Mothers, and therefore may pose a threat to the King and be heirs to the throne of Qin. In the Records of the Grand Historian or Shiji, the Marquis is described as a 'fake' eunuch, smuggled into the Queen's chambers by Lu Buwei to appease her carnal desires (see Cast of Characters for more background information about Lu Buwei and Lao Ai). The gig is up for the Marquis when the King is over for supper and one of the children appear. They both pretend nothing is wrong, and the King takes his leave, but the Marquis knows his children will not be allowed to live, and stages a revolt, in one of the more exciting moments of film. The Shiji describes his revolt:

It was discovered that Lao Ai was plotting revolt. He had forged the seals of the king and the queen dowaer and called out the district troops...Fighting took place in Xianyang and several hundred heads were cut off...In the ninth month Lao Ai and his three sets of relatives were executed, the two sons whom the queen dowager had borne were put to death, and...Lao Ai's followers were all deprived of their household goods and sent into exile in Shu.

And then there are the children of Zhao...when the Qin troops have surrounded the captial, the King of Zhou refuses to submit, and he gathers the children of Zhao in a temple, and they are ordered to commit suicide if Qin troops succeed in entering the capital. When Lady Zhao hears of this, she must go to the King and beg him to help..."Go save the children of Zhao," she pleads. "If you save them, you will win the love of the Zhao people."

There is one other child which figures prominently in the narrative -- King Ying Zheng himself. As portrayed by Li Xuejian, the First Emperor would keep a whole army of therapists in business for years. If they aren't all put to death, that is. King Zheng seems to vacillate back and forth, from vicious general, to noble leader, to confused adolescent. And it bears keeping in mind, he didn't have much of a childhood, and became King at the age of 13 -- who is to tell him what is right and what is wrong, then? At times, he seems like a scared child, and you want to reach out and give him a hug. Then, two seconds later, he becomes a cold, calculating ruler and scares the crap out of everybody. But in several key scenes he is a child, nevertheless -- especially when confronting Lu Buwei in the Qin ancestral temple with the charges set out against him by Lao Ai. And again, when surveying the wreckage of the city of Zhao, and determining the fate of its children, he idly flips a child's toy in his hand, the tinny sound of its two tiny drums at first seem to soothe, then later distress, the Emperor. And perhaps, though I can't say for sure, it is this childlike interior world of Ying Zheng that makes the assassin pause, at the end, and understand at last that he cannot do the task he set out to do. Though it was never the assassination that was important -- it was the attempt alone.

In the Shiji, the assassination attempt is recorded in great detail. Instead of discussing how it is done in the film, I would rather simply quote the Shiji, and then allow the viewer to compare the film version with what was written by the court historian thousands of years before. The narrative picks up where Jing Ke the assassin and his assistant Qin Wuyang have entered the throne room of Xianyang palace:

...step by step they advance through the throne room until they reached the throne, where Qin Wuyang suddenly turned pale and began to quake with fear. The courtiers eyed him suspiciously. Jing Ke turned around, laughed at Qin Wuyang, and then stepped forward to apologize: "This man is a simple rustic from the barbarous region of the northern border, and he has never seen the Son of Heaven. That is why he shakes with fright. I beg Your Majesty to pardon him for the moment and permit me to complete my mission before you."

"Bring the map he is carrying!" said the king to Jing Ke, who took the map container from Qin Wuyang and presented it to the king. The king opened the container, and when he had removed the map, the dagger appeared [the dagger was concealed in the map earlier]. At that moment Jing Ke seized the king's sleeve with his left hand, while with his right he snatched up the dagger and held it pointed at the king's breast, but he did not stab him. The king jerked back in alarm and leapt from his seat, tearing the sleeve off his robe. He tried to draw his sword, but it was long and clung to the scabbard and, since it hung vertically at his side, he could not, in his haste, manage to get it out.

Jing Ke ran after the king, who dashed around the pillar of the throne room. All the courtiers, utterly dumbfounded by so unexpected an occurance, milled about in disorder.

According to Qin law, no courtier or attendant who waited upon the king in the upper throne room was permitted to carry a weapon of any kind...Having nothing with which to strike at Jing Ke, the king in panic-stricken confusion merely flailed at him with his hands. At the same time the physician Xia Wuju, who was in attendance, battered Jing Ke with the medicine bag he was carrying.

The king continued to circle the pillar, unable in his confusion to think of anything else to do. "Push the scabbard around behind you!" shouted the king's attendants, and, when he did this, he was at last able to draw his sword and strike at Jing Ke, slashing him across the left thigh. Jing Ke, staggering to the ground, raised his dagger and hurled it at the king, but it missed and struck the bronze pillar. The king attacked Jing Ke again.

Jing Ke, wounded now in eight places, realized that his attempt had failed. Leaning against the pillar, his legs sprawled before him, he began to laugh and curse the king...

How can a country celebrate this failed assassination so much? How could it possibly have any importance? The story of Jing Ke was told in stories, and made into a popular opera, long before it made the transition to TV and movies. What is it's enduring appeal? In the west, we prefer our heroes to succeed, and our villains to be destroyed. But the opposite happens here. But the history of China is filled with dictators and oppresive regimes, of which heroes were very unsuccessful, in general, in opposing. Even the legendary outlaws of the Water Margins, after waging wars against the corrupt people of the government, eventually submit, disband, and fade away. One need only think of something as recent as the Tienamen Square movement to remember that heroes, more often than not, are people who stand up against impossible odds because of the strength of their conviction, and are defeated and destroyed by those in power. But they will be remembered, like Jing Ke and his single, solitary act of defiance against the all-powerful Emperor has been remembered, for over two thousand years.

I am of two minds about The Emperor and the Assassin. On the one hand, the movie is beautiful. The Chinese landscapes are breathtaking, the sets are incredibly vast, the costumes are meticulously detailed, and almost every element of every scene has been carefully researched to be as close to what was really there, as part of Qin Dynasty China, as possible given our current knowledge. Even a scene which seemed so incongruous when first seen makes sense in an historical context. The King of Qin is setting up the Prince of Yan to make him angry enough to hire an assassin. So instead of throwing him out of the palace himself, he sends a midget to do the work for him, an effect designed to infuriate the Prince still more. What a strange choice, I thought to myself, but wouldn't you know it:

Actor Zhan was a dwarf entertainer of Qin. He was clever at making pronouncements that were amusing and at the same time in complete accord with the Way.

The Shiji goes on to state that he entertained for the First Emperor and the Second, and when that gig fell through he went on to work for Han -- one of the few success stories in this time period, really. But all the historical accuracy in the world doesn't mean anything if the film is boring. Luckily, it is never that. The battle scenes are amazing, the score is compelling without getting in the way of the visuals, the cinematography near flawless -- in sum you could say that Chen Kaige is at the top of his game with this one.

And yet.

The film as a whole doesn't quite fit together as well as it could. And the main reason, as far as I can tell, is the acting. You would think Chen Kaige has a win-win situation here, bringing back two of his stars from Farewell My Concubine, Gong Li and Zhang Fengyi. And Zhang Fengyi is superb as the assassin, a man who gives up killing but then, in the end, takes up his sword again, not to kill, but simply to make the attempt, because he believes in something greater than himself. His performance here cements his reputation, at least for me, as one of the best mainland actors around. Gong Li, on the other hand, falls completely flat here. No matter how many times I watch this film, I never quite 'get' Gong Li's character, Lady Zhao. And after repeated viewings, I'm pretty sure Gong Li didn't get her character, either. She is great in individual scenes, but once those scenes are strung together in the same movie, her choices don't really make much sense and her character never seems to gel. The big picture was lost, perhaps too much emphasis was placed on the need to be shy in one scene, clever in the next, now really be remourseful here. She plays all these emotions superbly, but in the end, although I can admire Gong Li's range, I am left without a solid portrait of the person, Lady Zhao. She never becomes real. Li Xuejian's performance as King Zheng suffers some of the same flaws, only less so. As a result, The Emperor and the Assassin is a movie filled with incredible moments, but the whole fails to equal the sum of its parts. But despite its flaws, this is a movie where a single scene rivals the best on offer from a dozen other films, and it still is most highly recommended.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 25, 2004.


Emperor and the Assassin is too long a movie. Although certain parts are ravishingly beautiful, it doesn't seem to focus its energy on any particular theme. It's interesting, however, in its sympathetic treatment of Lao Ai - someone so often slandered in traditional historiography.

Posted by: Jimmy Ryan at August 22, 2004 07:02 PM
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