The Emperor and the Assassin

Japan/China/France 1999

Reviewed by Richard Falcon


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

229 BC. King Ying Zheng of Qin wants to unify the seven warring Chinese states under his own rule as emperor. He captures the capital of the state of Han, defying his prime minister Lu Buwei. The main obstacle to unification is the powerful kingdom of Yan which Ying needs a pretext to invade. Lady Zhao, Ying's concubine whom he met during captivity in her home kingdom of Zhao, proposes to travel to Yan and contract an assassin to kill Ying Zheng. The attempt on his life by a Yan citizen will thus give Ying the excuse he needs for all-out war.

In Yan, Lady Zhao entrusts retired assassin Jing Ke with the job. Ying discovers from the Marquis Xhangxin, the queen mother's jester and lover, that he is the son of Lu Buwei, a revelation which endangers his right to the throne. Ying has the marquis killed and marches on Zhao. In an attack on the Zhao capital, the city's children leap to their deaths rather than submit to Qin rule. Lady Zhao renounces Ying Zheng's cruelty and falls in love with Jing Ke. The assassin fails in his attempt to murder Ying and is killed. Ying Zheng succeeds in becoming the first emperor of China, but rules alone.


Along with fellow Fifth-Generation film-maker Zhang Yimou, director Chen Kaige is best known among international arthouse audiences for his opulent visual style. But while delivering the exotic spectacle expected of Asian cinema by western audiences, Chen's films have also presented an oblique critique of the Communist authorities at home. (His 1993 epic Farewell My Concubine, for instance, with its bitter scenes set during the Cultural Revolution, was banned soon after opening in China.) In interviews about The Emperor and the Assassin, Chen has hinted at a connection between the quest for a united China pursued by Ying, the ambitious, murderous ruler of Qin, and the Chinese government's possible designs on Taiwan. But his latest film is weighted towards historical spectacle to such an extent that it's almost impossible to detect any contemporary subtext. Indeed, the involvement of the Chinese military in the films' battle scenes - unlike the CGI armies in Gladiator, the extras here are of the flesh-and-blood variety - suggests Chen has found favour at home with this account of the unification of China in the third century BC.

What remains in the mind are The Emperor's expertly staged battle scenes - reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's Ran, or even, in the film's most powerful sequence where the children of the Qin-occupied Zhao leap to their deaths from the castle walls, the second of Fritz Lang's Nibelungen films Kriemhild's Revenge (1924). But in its more intimate scenes, the film falls short of the emotional peaks of Chen's past work and fails to gain our understanding of or empathy for such complex characters as Ying (whose motives for unifying China remain cloudy; you're never sure if they're noble or corrupt). In setting in train the intricate Shakespearean-like plot, Chen introduces a range of potentially fascinating figures, from the Prince of Yan, who plans to murder Ying Zheng, to the powerful general Fan Yuqi, whose loyalty is strained by Ying's escalating brutality. But as with the scant backstory provided about Ying's childhood spent captive in Zhao, Chen seems reluctant to yield much in the way of telling character details. Barely developed, the enigmatic figures who inhabit Chen's richly detailed mise en scène make for a film whose key scenes, notably the climactic assassination attempt on Ying, lack any sense of tension or emotional resonance. The result recalls such stodgy Hollywood epics as Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954).

Chen punctuates the sumptuous spectacle with moments of uncomfortable cruelty: the samurai-like Jing Ke, for instance, is haunted by the suicide of a blind girl whose family he slaughtered and Lady Zhao (played by Gong Li) submits herself to a facial brand. But the film's failure to engage us reduces these moments to historical curiosities. Despite the entrancing Gong Li's subtle performance, her discreet, aestheticised facial scar only reminds us of her recent gig, advertising cosmetics for L'Oreal.


Chen Kaige
Chen Kaige
Shirley Kao
Satoru Iseki
Wang Peigong
Chen Kaige
Director of Photography
Zhao Fei
Zhou Xinxia
Production Designer
Tu Juhua
Zhao Jiping
Production Companies
Shin Corporation and Le Studio Canal+ present
New Wave Co. and Beijing Film Studio production in association with NDF/China Film Co-production Corp. Executive Producers
Han Sanping
Tsuguhiko Kadokawa
Hiromitsu Furukawa
Line Producer
Zhang Xia
Associate Producers
Philip Lee
Park Sunmin
Production Supervisor
Zeng Qanghui
Unit Production Manager
Bai Yu
Associate Director
Zhang Jinzhen
Assistant Directors
Zhang Xijue
Yang Haiquan
Wang Chao
CGI Effects
Centro Film
Special Effects Supervisor
Liu Shaochun
Costume Designer
Mo Xiaomin
Tao Jing
Chief Consultant
Zeng Qinghuai
Martial Arts Director
Liu Jiacheng
Gong Li
Lady Zhao
Zhang Fengyi
Jing Ke
Li Xuejian
Ying Zheng, King of Qin
Sun Zhou
Dan, Prince of Yan
Lu Xiaohe
General Fan Yuqi
Wang Zhiwen
Marquis Xhangxin
Chen Kaige
Lu Buwei
Gu Yongfei
Queen Mother
Zhao Benshan
Gao Jianli
Ding Haifeng
Qin Wuyang
Pan Changjiang
prison official
Zhou Xun
blind girl
Columbia Tristar Films (UK)
14,542 feet
161 minutes 35 seconds
Dolby Digital
In Colour
Original theatrical title
Jing Ke Ci Qin Wang
French theatrical title
L'Empereur et l'Assassin
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011