The Emperor And The Assassin

The Emperor And The Assassin (1999)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Gong Li, Xuejian Li, Fengyi Zhang
Extras: Commentary Track, Trailers, Talent Files, Production Notes

China has a very rich and intriguing history, much of which is either unknown to most Western people, or so bewildering that most people simply lose track of who was who and who did what when. Columbia TriStar Home Video has now prepared a beautiful DVD release of a historic epic by director Chen Kaige that shows us part of the life of the first emperor of China and his struggle to achieve the unification of the huge land that once consisted of over 100 separate kingdoms. "The Emperor And The Assassin" is the name of the movie and with hauntingly beautiful images and a compelling story line that is comparable to the greatest and most epic historic monumental films most American viewers are more familiar with.

In 221 B.C., Ying Zheng (Xuejian Li) the King of Qin, has one grand vision. In order to bring peace to China, and in order to protect the country from outside forces – especially the Barbarians to the North – he wants to unify the 7 remaining kingdoms that make up China at that point in history. Since that means intruding into other people’s domains, the idea is not very popular with the remaining kings and Ying Zheng wages a war against each one of them. A heroic warrior himself, Ying Zheng leads his men to battle and successfully takes the thriving Han kingdom, to make it part of Qin. The next step in his plan is to integrate the kingdom of Yan in his unified kingdom. Aware of the implications, he knows that he cannot simply attack the kingdom, as it would cause a stir among the remaining kingdom, who may unite to battle his plans. Ying Zheng needs an aggressor and with the help of his lover, Lady Zhao (Gong Li) the plan is forged to lure an assassin from Yan to the palace who attempts to kill Ying Zheng. After such an act of obvious aggression, Ying Zheng could openly fare war against the kingdom and make it part of his grand scheme. While at first things seem to work out just as expected, the plan takes an unexpected turn when Ying Zheng attacks the kingdom of Zhao, the home of his lover and his own previous homestead. In a brutal slaughter, everyone in Zhao is killed, only to keep one of Ying Zheng’s dark secrets hidden.

If you are familiar with all details of Chinese history, you are probably aware how the film’s plot develops, given Ying Zheng’s impressive stature in the annals of his country. But even with that in mind, "The Emperor And The Assassin" is a mesmerizing film full of character drama and a big evolving story of battle and bravery. Epic pictures of armies go hand in hand with the somber pictures of characters in solitude. A thread of deceit and intrigue makes up much of the story, something that was almost everyday-business at the Chinese palaces of the time. The film nicely portrays the political cabals as forces shift back and forth and in the midst we witness the struggle of a truly visionary emperor who has to kill his own people in order to bring them peace. Above all towers the image of Lady Zhao, a brave woman who is willing to give everything to support the vision of her loved one, until the peaceful mission turns into a brutal holocaust.

The film boasts a great cast, spearheaded by Xuejian Li as the king of Qin. He is convincing and brings a respectability to the part that emanates the entire movie. He is firmly established as a warrior in the beginning of the film so that all his decisiveness, his power and his prowess are always in the back of the viewer’s head. Gong Li makes a great Lady Zhao and her transformation over the course of the story is nicely paced. We believe her bravery and virtues – China’s history is full of such women – and completely follow her transformation as the story progresses. Another great performance comes from actor Fengyi Zhang who plays the part of the remorseful killer Jing Ke with a lot of empathy and ferociousness.

Most fans of Hong Kong movies have gotten used to rather poor and defective film prints in the past, but with their recent releases of genre films on DVD, Columbia TriStar Home Video proves that it is indeed possible to create splendid looking transfers of those films. "The Emperor And The Assassin" is a good example. The source print is virtually free of nicks or defects, creating a clean and clear image. The <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> <$PS,widescreen> transfer is rich in colors and exhibits an incredible level of detail throughout without any signs of grain or noise. Much of the movie is determined by its grandeur, it magnificent photography and the epic images, and on this DVD, every bit of detail has been captured and reproduced. The color delineation of the transfer is meticulous, bringing out the best of the many earth tones that define the picture, as well as the more effective color lighting set-ups the film has to offer. The blacks in the presentation are deep and never break up, leaving all the intricate shadow detail fully intact. Highlights are balanced and always natural looking, while skin tones are faithfully rendered, giving the entire movie a very natural quality. Some slight edge-enhancement has applied to the transfer but it is never noticeable or distracting. The compression is flawless. Not a hint of compression artifacts can be found in this gorgeous transfer giving the picture dimensionality, depth and a great level of detail.

The DVD features a <$DS,Dolby Surround> audio track in Mandarin and Spanish, while English, French and Spanish subtitles are supplied optional, selectable form the disc’s menu. To my amazement, the surround track is very active and aggressive, despite the implicit limitations of the Dolby surround format. The surround felt almost discrete at times and the frequency response of the track was staggering. With a great low end, the track creates a massive rumble during some of the battle scenes while the high ends are always a clear and free of distortion. The dialogue is clean and well produced, and always placed in the mix at an understandable level.
Beautifully and atmospheric, the score for "The Emperor And The Assassin" is just as impressive, featuring big heroic themes and intricate orchestrations that perfectly support the overall experience of this movie.

Full of surprises, the disc also reveals a <$commentary,commentary track> by director Chen Kaige. Full of excitement and energy, the director shares many aspects of the production, but also deeper thoughts and an analysis of contemporary Chinese history in the track, making this an compelling track to listen to. Not only does it show how the film came about, but also explores more of the motivations of the characters and their historic counterparts. If you enjoyed the movie, I am sure you will want to know more about Ying Zheng and his brave Lady Zhao, and the track is the treasure trove of information in that respect. Theatrical trailer for this and a number of other Chinese movies in Columbia TriStar’s repertoire can also be found on the disc, as well as selected Talent Files and Production Notes.

"The Emperor And The Assassin" is a captivating film that is exciting from the first minute to its last frame. Masterfully told, you will never notice that the film runs over 160 minutes, as you are completely engrossed in the unfolding plot of deceit, bravery, warfare and intrigue. Columbia TriStar Home Video has once again created an absolutely stunning version of a film that would easily be overlooked and gives viewers the chance to witness this glorious tale in the best possible presentation quality. This disc is a solid winner and a commanding history lesson that shouldn’t be missed – can not be missed!