Emperor's Shadow, The (Qin Song)
China 1999
Directed by Zhou Xiaowen.

The emperor forces his childhood friend to compose a themesong for his conquest, but the musician never fails to disappoint.

The Emperor's Shadow is an epic portrayal of the rise to power of the First Emperor, One of the most expensive Chinese movies ever made, it is filled with lavish sets, massive armies of extras, and stars two of the most popular actors on the mainland. But the historical trappings are really nothing more than a dramatic and lively backdrop to the real story of two childhood friends, one a famous musician, the other soon to be the leader of all China, and the ideological distance that forever seperates the two.

King Zheng (Jiang Wen) is portrayed as a conquerer here, as he must be, but there is something more he desires beyond military victories. Above all he is concerned with the symbols and identity of the new Qin Dynasty, and the way that these new symbols will come to represent all of China, and be accepted by the people. A constant reminder of his obsession with symbology is the rushing of water. King Zheng subscribed to the theory of the Five Elements. Because Qin replaced the Zhou Dynasty, and he believed the Zhou ruled under the element of Fire, he chose Water to represent Qin. The elements follow one another in the order in which they can overcome each other -- water defeats fire. Water is associated with the color black, which so becomes the color of the Qin banners. Water is associated with the number six, which becomes the standard unit of measurement: carriages were six feet, drawn by six horses, six feet became equal to one pace. Interestingly enough, Water is also associated with winter, darkness, harshness, and death, though perhaps the King was hoping the people would stay focused on the more positive associations.

But his unification strategy went far beyond merely choosing the color scheme. He knew, or his advisor Li Si told him, how best to hold together an empire -- a common currency, a common written language, a centralized government. Large bodies of people were eventually moved from one part of the Empire to the other, to break down old family ties to the land. But still, there was one more thing he wanted.

A national anthem.

King Zheng well knows a famous musician of Yan, Gao Jianli (Ge You). He knows him because they were close as children, like brothers. The musicians mother was the young Zheng's wet nurse. We learn in flashbacks that the young Zheng wished Janli to accompany him when he left Yan for Qin to become King at the age of 13, but, while they were sleeping in the carriage together, it was stopped and Jianli was unceremoniously dumped on the roadside.

The King decides it's time to bring his old friend back. He moves the destruction of Yan up in his schedule, and instructs his men to get Gao Jianli and bring him back. But it is a difficult case, even from the beginning. Jianli sympathizes with those who wish to kill King Zheng, is in fact a friend of Jing Ke, the famous assassin, who makes a brief appearance here in Jianli's parlour (For a full account of the story of Jing Ke, see The Emperor and the Assassin). Gao is unconcerned with politics, however, and simply asks them to stay for a tune. "Never pass an opportunity to savor beauty," he advises. Shortly thereafter, his home is burnt to the ground, the cities of Yan fall to Qin, and he is taken, a prisoner, to Qin.

What follows is a test of wills between two men -- the King and the Musician. For the most part, King Zheng cannot spend all of his time doting on his captive, trying to convince him to write the anthem. He has duties of state to attend to, he must organize the destruction of Chu, put down rebels, and so on. For his part, Gao Jianli refuses to write the anthem for him, out of principle. He loathes the King, intellectually at least, for his oppressive regime. What tears at Jianli so is that emotionally he is still very attached to his childhood friend. Nevertheless, he resists, by refusing to eat, then by casting insults on the King's favorite daughter (Xu Qing), a spirited young woman who is unable to walk ever since being thrown from a horse as a child. She brands him on the forehead as a criminal for insulting her, but later the Jianli is smitten by her beauty, and Zheng believes she can convince Jianli to write the anthem for him, if she stays by him for a time.

It is inevitable that they fall in love, and Jianli gets the goods before her fiance does, throwing the King into fits of rage. It's the same old story of the young woman being betrothed to a man she does not love, in this case the son of a famous Qin general, only to fall in love with another. Tragedy inevitably results. But still, tragedy does not result right away, and they have some really remarkable sex -- Jianli should open up a booth and charge rates for his services. At first he does it just so the King will have no choice but to kill him, but love being what it is, he suddenly gains a will to live. Gao Jianli continues his resistance, and endures several more near death experiences and tortures, including being blinded by hot horse piss, as the anthem, and Qin's conquest of the remaining states, nears completion. We know that Qin is triumphant, that the other states are defeated and King Zheng becomes Emperor. But at the same time the tangled emotional relationship between the King, his daughter, and Gao Jianli is compelling, it's conclusion uncertain, until the very end.

The Emperor's Shadow is epic, but focuses tightly on a human drama. It has an art house style, but never drags. The script is snappy and director Zhou Xiaowen keeps things moving right along. Moments of humor in the story provide relief from the drama and let us know that the film isn't taking itself too seriously. At one point, Xu Fu is discussing with another why he hasn't been able to retrieve the herbs of immortality. The King comes up behind him and suggests he try swimming out to sea to find it, and unceremoniously shoves him into the raging river. Jiang Wen, as King Zheng, is able to make these scenes work. Of all the portrayals of Qin Shi Huangdi I've seen, his is the most convincing, the most complete. He is able to wed the different aspects of the Emperor's character seamlessly, allowing him to be loving to those close to him but utterly, incomprehensibly cruel to the faceless masses of the people.

The story is original, though it is based on the historic timeline of King Zheng's rise to Emperor as outlined in Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian or Shiji. The character of Gao Jianli comes from the histories, too, though he comes out much changed for the film. He is mentioned but briefly in the Shiji, under the Biographies of the Assassin-Retainers. He is not much more than a footnote to the more famous story of Jing Ke. In the Shiji, it is Jing Ke, not King Zheng, whom Gao Jianli is close friends with:

In the course of his travels, Jing Ke reached the state of Yan, where he became close friends with a dog butcher and a man named Gao Jianli who was good at playing the lute. Jing Ke was fond of wine, and every day he would join the dog butcher and Gao Jianli to drink in the marketplace of the Yan capital. After the wine had begun to take effect, Gao Jianli would strike up the lute and Jing Ke would join in with a song.

When Jing Ke's assassination attempt failed, Gao Jianli went into hiding to avoid persecution. But eventually he could hide no more, mainly because he couldn't stand other people's poor lute playing, and he went public again. Qin Shi Huangdi heard of his skill and summoned him for an audience. The Shiji narrative concludes:
...when he appeared, someone who had known him in the past exclaimed, "This is Gao Jianli!" The Emperor, unable to bring himself to kill such a skilled musician, ordered his eyes put out and commanded him to play in his presence. The Emperor never failed to praise his playing and gradually allowed him to come nearer and nearer. Gao Jianli then got a heavy piece of lead and fastened it inside his lute, and the next time he was summoned to play at the Emperor's side, he raised his lute and struck at the Emperor. He missed and was summarily executed, and after that the Emperor never again permitted any of the former followers of the feudal lords to approach his person.

And so Gao Jianli was just another failed assassin. When The Emperor's Shadow was released in China, there was some complaint at the "historical inaccuracy" of the film -- specifically of the fabrication much of Gao Jianli's background and character. But who's to say Sima Qian's tale is any closer to the truth? The biographical sections of his book use as one of their sources an early text called Intrigues of the Warring States, which is known to be largely fiction. So perhaps a better complaint would be to say the film does not closely follow the 'traditional' history.

The Chinese censors also had something to complain about. They banned the film not once, but twice, before finally allowing it to be shown. Why? Because as compelling as the personal story is in The Emperor's Shadow, it's real message is this: Art cannot be controlled by the Government. But the Government is sure as hell going to try its best. The Censors could not help but notice that the King was obsessed with trying to control the minds of the common people. And in order to do that, he has to control popular art to guide the common people's ideas. Just like what the censors were doing, and by extension, the communist party itself. One of the central tenants under Maoism is control of the press, of art, of literature. The literati must write 'correct' books to 'educate' the people. Traditional Chinese Opera presented poor themes and gave people bad ideas. So instead they forced the Eight Model Plays to be performed. Writers and Directors are much more powerful figures in Chinese society than they are in the West. It is believed that they have the power to shape a nation, to sway a people, to criticize a government. And for that they are feared. In fact, part of the very foundation of the literati ethic in China is that it is their duty to criticize government and suggest ways for it to be improved. As if the Communist government needed any more proof that writers and creative people were dangerous, it was a small group of writers, and only later students and workers, who fomented the Tianamen Square movement.

Writers cannot criticize the present directly, however. They must instead reach into the past, pull out various historical characters, and through their actions reveal a moral or lesson which a willing audience, now used to such subterfuge, can transpose onto the present. This is nothing new to China: ironically, over two thousand years ago, Prime Minister Li Si petitioned the Emperor to burn all the books, and explained:

Nowadays scholars, instead of looking to the present, study antiquity to criticize their own age...Anyone who uses antiquity to criticize the present shall be executed along with his family.

Though the penalties are not as harsh today, still writers and directors must tread carefully if they wish to avoid what the rulers of today, like the rulers of the long ago Qin Dynasty, so hate and fear. This time at least, art has risen over government, and The Emperor's Shadow can and should be seen by anyone with an interest in Chinese cinema.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 25, 2004.

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