The Emperor and the Assassin | Chicago Reader

The Emperor and the Assassin

Historical spectaculars tend to fall into two broad categories: myths of origin (Cecil B. De Mille's 1923 and 1956 versions of The Ten Commandments) and more ponderous inquiries into the hero's personality (Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Lean's Lawrence of Arabia). Chen Kaige's massive 161-minute epic (1999) about the unification of China, accomplished by its first emperor during the third century BC, attempts an impossible synthesis of these two categories, beginning with Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), the king of Ch'in, as a charismatic hero and ending with him as a murderous villain, the mantle of heroism having passed to his former mistress (Gong Li) and the mysterious assassin she enlists to kill him (Zhang Fengyi). Though there's no physical resemblance, it's impossible to follow the development of Ying Zheng without thinking of Mao—in some respects the last Chinese emperor—but even without that parallel this is a powerful story and a splendid spectacle. Compared with Maggie Cheung, Gong Li is arguably more an iconic star than an actress, but on this outing she gives a pretty impressive performance.

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