Another historic epic from Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”), this time going back to 221 BC and the first emperor of China. The story is of course astonishing as it sprawls across the screen over nearly three hours with complex, blink-and-you-miss-it storytelling. And yet the film’s theatrical, stilted style seems at odds with its intensely dramatic, personal plotline.
The King of Qin (Li) feels it’s his heaven-sent mission to unite the seven kingdoms of China under one benevolent ruler. So he sets out to conquer the other six. His earnestness has earned him the respect of those around him, including his mistress Lady Zhao (Gong), who agrees to help him trap the Prince of Han (Sun) with an elaborate scheme involving an assassin (Zhang). But while she’s away things start crumbling at home and the king starts to lose it, becoming more paranoid, violent and tyrannical. Those close to him start dying at an alarming rate. And Lady Zhao shifts her alliances to plot his downfall.
This is a powerful story with compelling, fascinating characters. And in many ways it’s very well told, with a slightly askance view of historical authenticity that goes straight for the dramatic meat beneath the surface. On the other hand, the whole thing is assembled with an off-center visual style that makes the actors look isolated and rather wooden, delivering their lines precisely as if they’re reciting Shakespearean verse. This is obviously an intentional device Chen is using to weigh the story historically, but it undercuts the personal drama, tragedy and especially the romance, which merely becomes vague shading to the story. This lack of passion and realism doesn’t render the film dull (there’s not a wasted moment in nearly three hours!), but it makes it impossible to feel the story’s punch.