Plot: What’s it about?
Yin Zheng (Xuejian Li) is the ruler of one region of China, who seeks to do what no man has been able to do before, unify China. Zheng feels unification is needed to keep China strong, since an invasion on a unified China could be handled, but not by one single region’s men. Alone they would be overpowered, but if they join together they can hold on to their land and homes. While the idea is in the best interest of China as a whole, leaders of the other regions are not so pleased with the idea, and refuse to join Zheng. As such, Zheng is forced to lead his men into battle against the region of Han, to attempt to make it part of Zheng’s own Qin kingdom. The attack is a success and the region is taken over by Zheng and his men, but there are five others left to make join this new union. He must now take control of Yan, but if he attacks them for no reason the remaining kingdoms may unite against him, which would be too much. But thanks to his lover Lady Zhao (Gong Li), Zheng has a plan which includes luring an assassin to try to kill him, which would provide more than enough reason to attack the Yan kingdom. What started as a mission to strengthen and unite China seems to have turned to a blood soaked hostile takeover, which leaves Lady Zhao wondering if she has done the right thing.
This is one of those movies, one that I could watch a million times but choose not to, so when I do I can truly savor the film. This has it all, a powerful storyline, terrific acting, and incredible cinematography, one of the finest films I have seen of late. It’s hard to compare this to anything, but I’d say if you liked Braveheart or The Messenger, you should enjoy this movie. It rotates between intimate scenes with the characters, which is where the emotional storyline develops, and some wild and epic battle scenes, which look amazing to be truthful. Neither takes a stronger hand either, as both types work together to create a wider tapestry on which the film unfolds. The dialogue is well written and delivered to perfection, and the more internal, personal side of the film works very well. The battle scenes also come across well, with all manner of warring, be it horseback, sword to sword, it’s like chaos incarnate at times. The costumes and set design are excellent as well, this is a very visually stunning movie as well as having substance. I recommend this movie to everyone, it is a true modern classic that I think everyone should give a chance. First timers will want to rent, but veterans of the film will want to place this in their collections for sure.
This film was directed by Chen Kaige, who also worked as a writer and producer for the movie. Kaige is known for the visuals in his films, and that tradition is continued with this movie, perhaps even his most beautiful film yet. I hope to see Kaige back behind the camera soon, and I can only also hope he has this good of a story and cast to work with. If you’re looking for other films by Kaige to check out, look up Farewell My Concubine, Life On A String, and Temptress Moon. The lead role in this movie is played by a very talented actor, even if she isn’t that well known here. In the global scope of things, she’s very popular and famous, but here in the United States, few even know she exists. That actor is Gong Li, who is an excellent performer and turns in one of her best works in this film. Her powerful performance here caught many eyes, so let’s hope Li (Ju Dou, Chinese Box) can find more American films to work with. The supporting cast for this movie includes Xuejian Li (The Blue Kite), Zhang Fengyi (The Assassin, Police Confidential), Sun Zhou, and Lu Xiaohe.
Video: How does it look?
The Emperor and The Assassin is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. This movie has very powerful visuals, and Columbia has come through as usual and delivered a wonderful visual presentation here. Although the film is based in more natural tones, when brighter hues are called for they look terrific, with no errors to report at all, even flesh tones appear normal and consistent. You’ll find the contrast is just as effective, with excellent shadow layering and no visible detail loss, which is vital to some of the internal scenes. The source print looks nearly pristine with no serious issues, and compression artifacts never rear their ugly little heads.
Audio: How does it sound?
This release uses a 2.0 Dolby surround track for audio, which implements the original Mandarin language, which is great news for fans of the film. This track handles everything the film throws at it, from the loudest battle scenes to the softest dialogue moments. The surrounds are used often and skillfully, offering a very immersive atmosphere for the movie. Given the nature of 2.0 tracks, I didn’t expect much power, but this one surprised me and I think it will please everyone. The dialogue is very clear and crisp, with no volume issues. For non Mandarin speakers, subtitles are included in English, Spanish, and French.
Supplements: What are the extras?
This release contains talent files, production notes on the insert, and theatrical trailers for The Emperor and The Assassin, The Story Of Qui Ju, The Last Emperor, and The King Of Masks. The main supplement is a running commentary with director Chen Kaige, which is a wonderful inclusion. The track is in English, so no worries and it is filled with production information and even some humorous bits here and there. Kaige stammers from time to time, but the track is well worth the time if you like the movie.