The Emperor and the Assassin
This cast-of-millions historical epic, directed by Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) and purportedly the most expensive film ever made in China, could have been even more effective with less extravagance and more emphasis on irony. The stormy tale of China's violent unification in 3 B.C. under the first emperor, Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), rambles through a maze of imperial court plotting, furious retaliatory tactics, and intrigue that make Shakespeare's goriest tales seem tame by comparison. The story's centerpiece -- and the performer who rises above the bloodfest -- is the luminous Gong Li as Lady Zhou, the emperor's longtime lover and confidante who boldly involves herself in his machinations to secure one last rebellious province, a strategy that unfolds unexpectedly. Beautifully designed and excitingly shot (the scenes of carnage are genuinely horrifying), the more than 2 1/2-hour Emperor is, nevertheless, too long and scattered to allow the ironic finale to carry much more than a feeling of relief.