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Reviewed March 11th, 2001 by Todd Terwilliger


At the close of the Warring States period in Ancient China, there were only a handful of independent states left. Ying Zheng, the King of the state of Qin, is driven by the command of his ancestors to unite China under Qin rule. In The Emperor and the Assassin, Chen Kaige follows the King of Qin on his unification quest.

Xuejian Li plays the titular emperor. So driven is he to unite the kingdoms that, after conquering the state of Han by force, he agrees to send his lover, Lady Zhao (Li Gong) to the state of Yan as a criminal. There she will convince Yan to send an assassin to Qin, giving the king the excuse he needs to invade.

However, while Lady Zhao is away, Ying Zheng is overcome by the lust for power. Too, the hired assassin, Jing Ke (Fengyi Zhang) elevates himself through humility and compassion. Lady Zhao must question her once clear-cut motivations as the assassination plot grows to fruition.

Although there is no English soundtrack (see below), the acting is first rate. If you are unfamiliar with the Chinese style, you may find it a bit stiff, but it is ultimately satisfying. As Ying Zheng, Xuexjian Li is able to portray both sadness and arrogance at war within the emperor, torn between his desire for love and power.

The anamorphic video is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. While generally clear, there are occasions of pixelation and dust. The picture is also soft at times. The palette is dominated by browns and tans that are well rendered. However, occasionally the flesh tones seem a bit over-saturated.

The soundtrack is presented in either the original Mandarin Chinese or Spanish, both in a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. The Chinese soundtrack is well done. Dialog is clear and the musical score deep. There is little movement across the sound field nor are the surrounds and sub utilized except by the musical score.

There are several nice extras included on the disc. The best of these is a commentary by the director Chen Kaige. This is an English commentary and the quality is pretty good. He is well spoken and it's not difficult to understand him, though he does, of course, speak with a Chinese accent. Kaige has many interesting things to say about the trials and tribulations of making this sort of epic film in China. Besides the commentary, there are also theatrical trailers, talent files, and production notes. Most of these are one view wonders but interesting none the less.

The Emperor and the Assassin is an epic film in the tradition of the great Akira Kurasawa films of the past. The production values of the set pieces alone are wonderful. If you were ever interested in this era of history, or enjoy the great saga motion picture, this is a film to see.


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