CANNES ’99 REVIEW: Chen Kaige’s Opulent “Emperor” Lacks Human Resonance
by Stephen Garrett
Chen Kaige sets a new standard in his own epic moviemaking with the visual scale of “The Emperor and the Assassin,” a lavish, breathtaking production that invests more energy into recreating the brutal opulence of third century B.C. than in fully realizing the emotional ties among its main characters, resulting in a 160-minute film that leaves little human resonance within its vast corridors of power. Crowd response at the press screening was,
nonetheless, generous, with reverent clapping at the end; and the director’s stature in Cannes (this is his fifth film to play in competition) automatically earns “Emperor” a fighting chance for prize consideration, although his previous picture “Temptress Moon” walked away empty-handed in 1996.
Chen has become progressively more conservative in his image-rich storytelling, with “Emperor” the latest example of a strangely soulless grandeur and mechanical mise-en-scene that rarely drifts into moments of lyrical passion, in stark contrast to the director’s early films, particularly his 1984 debut “Yellow Earth” and 1991’s “Life on a String;” as well as his most eloquent synthesis of style and substance, 1993’s Palme
d’Or-winning “Farewell My Concubine.” Whether it be the years of relentless pressure from the Chinese government to conform artistically or a lack of communal inspiration from fellow “Fifth Generation” filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang, Chen seems now to be more interested in an embalmed aestheticism that feels more exhausting than exhilarating.
The director’s narrative instincts, though, remain ambitious: Set two thousand years ago, the film follows the events that lead up to the unification of China and the establishment of the Qin Dynasty as well as the country’s first Emperor, Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), who eventually ascends to the ruling title of Qin Shishuang. Driven by the audacious desire to combine all of China’s kingdoms and have each province governed by honorable
noblemen — all of whom are under his command — ruthless Ying, king of Qin, sows his seeds of war to conquer neighboring kingdoms like Han, Chu, Wei, Yan, Qi, and Zhao. Originally born in Zhao, Ying is romantically involved with Lady Zhao (Gong Li), the womsn with whom he grew up as a child; and her fidelity to Ying as well as his imperial dreams leads her to devise a fake assassination attempt against him, in turn framing the stubborn kingdom of Yan and giving Ying reason enough to invade their land.
But his hunger for power makes him blind to compassion, and his bloodlust causes massacres wherever his armies invade — a bloodlust that boils even more angrily when he discovers that the Queen Mother (Gu Yang Fei) had an affair with her courtesan the Marquis (Wang Zhiwen) that produced two half-brothers. More shocking for him is the revelation that his real father is actually the Prime Minister of Qin and that Ying himself is not the legitimate heir to the throne on which he sits. Demanding the execution of his brothers and the deaths of all those who might know his family secrets, Ying orders a devastating assault on Lady Zhao’s territory that leads to a mass genocide, including many of the kingdom’s children.
Repulsed by her lover’s rage and cruelty, Lady Zhao then decides to hire an assassin for real so that Ying can be stopped, and gets well-known killer Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi) for the job. Only problem, though, is that Jing is still smarting from the revelatory moment when, during one of his gun-for-hire murders, he was forced to attack an innocent teenage girl who stabbed herself in front of his eyes. Haunted by the incident and troubled with a change of heart, Jing casts uncertainty onto the success of the assassination attempt on Ying, while his newfound humanity makes Lady Zhao fall in love with him.
Although lushly photographed by Zhao Fei (his next feature is Woody Allen’s fall release), the real stars of “Emperor” are production designer Tu Juhua and costume designer Mo Xiaomin, whose stunning orchestrations of a China two millennia old are awe-inspiring. Inversely proportionate to their imaginative work is a mostly stilted direction and story, which primarily lacks the sort of cinematic and dramatic grandiloquence that came from such masters as David Lean. In Lean’s work, the characters were connected to
their landscapes in a vital, almost symbiotic existence; here Chen’s characters seem more like puppets: their drama is not writ large in a manner befitting, and reflecting, the pageant that surrounds them.