Storytelling on an epic scale is of such earnest importance to Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige that we’re effectively sedated by it in The Emperor and the Assassin, a historical drama as static as it is stately. Recounting the Homeric saga of a king (Li Xuejian) who becomes a brute on his way to unifying third-century b.c. China as the country’s first emperor, the man hired to kill him (Zhang Fengyi), and the woman between them (Gong Li, who also starred in the director’s ”Farewell My Concubine” and ”Temptress Moon”), Chen stages every scene as if it were the Greatest Story Ever Told.
And there are a lot of scenes, all elaborately composed and sumptuously shot, all carrying the same enervating gravitas. Armies in battle never looked so glorious, teardrops so crystalline, as through the regal cinematography of Zhao Fei (who, ditching gravitas, went on to shoot Woody Allen’s ”Sweet and Lowdown”).
But who ARE these characters? Who are all the other schemers and dreamers plotting or being plotted against? Are we in the ancient kingdom of Qin or Yan or Zhao or Han at any given moment of the 161 moments on screen? Chen the stirring filmmaker doesn’t say; his eye is on galloping horses in the distance.