The Emperors’ Old Clothes


China’s Fifth Generation continues to work through its midlife crisis. Zhang Yimou retreats further from art house opulence (his modest inspirational tale, Not One Less, won him the Golden Lion at Venice this year); Chen Kaige, who came to international prominence with the exotic soap-operatics of Farewell My Concubine, presses on with hyperdesigned historical melodrama. While Chen’s previous film, the ravishing opium hallucination Temptress Moon, was a boldly decadent pose, The Emperor and the Assassin is solid middlebrow entertainment, a vast period epic with an almost DeMillean taste for excess.

Like last year’s Emperor’s Shadow, the movie is set in the third century B.C. and concerns the power-crazed first emperor of China, Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), a man obsessed with unifying the seven Chinese kingdoms under his rule (he considered it a mandate from ancestral gods). To justify the invasion of a neighboring state, the king and his lover, Lady Zhao (Gong Li), decide to engineer a fake attempt on his life. The plan is complicated by a revelation about his parentage that turns the king into a bloodthirsty maniac, and later by the dismayed Lady Zhao’s increasingly close relationship with the brooding would-be killer (Zhang Fengyi). The Emperor and the Assassin alternates between thunderous, bloody set pieces and dense expository exchanges in lavish interiors—the elaborate imperial intrigue and incestuous backstories are outlined so methodically that they’re not only easy to follow but tiresome. Chen is plainly in it for the spectacle. Aided by ever agile cinematographer Zhao Fei (who also shot Sweet and Lowdown), the director pulls off one dazzling combat scene after another, choreographing his cast of thousands with numbly impressive old-school pomp.

** Flash-forward 2000-plus years to another visionary ruler and the no-bullshit woman he loves: The century’s most bizarrely enduring culture-clash fable gets dusted off for one more run-through, and for those who applauded Titanic‘s old-is-new ethos, the moth-eaten, barely breathing Anna and the King will serve as a slap in the face. In what counts as progress, King Mongkut of Siam—previously embodied by Rex Harrison and Yul Brynner—is here recognizably Asian, though not Thai. Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat, the best thing about this lumbering, mindlessly pretty movie, plays the monarch with sly poise and under-his-breath amusement. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, invests the role of the Victorian schoolteacher with misplaced nervous energy and a mild protofeminist charge, which is quickly smothered by the film’s bland plushness.

Divested of Rodgers and Hammerstein saccharine, the tin-eared screenplay struggles to fill dead air, throwing in a treason subplot that culminates with an escape to the jungle and a bridge being blown up. Bursts of subtitled Thai represent a token stab at veracity, though for emotive monologues, Thai characters routinely break into English (the over-enunciated, article-free brand—”Man never tell woman he’s sorry”—that used to denote “foreign tongue” in Old Hollywood). Anna and the King make eyes at each other throughout, but the movie hinges less on repressed attraction than on the comedy of East-meets-West confusion and the resulting process of mutual self-actualization—the pair don’t so much converse as lob tough-love platitudes back and forth.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 14, 1999

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