August, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Stephen Frears

Starring:Dustin Hoffman, Geena Davis, Andy Garcia, Joan Cusack, Kevin J. O'Connor, Maury Chaykin, and Stephen Tobolowsky

Here's a film only a cinematographer could love; it's beautifully composed, contains some stunning action sequences, features a gorgeously costumed cast comprising half the adult population of China, and comes topped off with Quentin Tarantino's seal of approval…but when the lights in the theater come up after 96 minutes of images worthy of the National Geographic, you'll wonder why it seemed so very, very long…

Shot on numerous authentic locations by veteran director Yimou Zhang, (Shanghai Triad) this examination of the historic circumstances surrounding the ruler who first unified China has all the scope and grandeur one could expect from a historical epic, and it's delayed U. S. release, (after the movie's stunning success in Asia in 2002) comes complete with ecstatic reviews from our professional critics. But absent an unhealthy attachment to action star Jet Li, or a predilection for endless, gymnastic kung-fu sword fights shot in the manner of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you'll have a tough time seeing what all the fuss is about--and that's before trying to make sense of the plot.

Three assassins in the employ of various warlords decide to kill Qin, ruler of one of a half dozen kingdoms comprising what has become modern China. Qin's appetite for bloody, rapacious conquest has so disgusted this trio that they resort to a scheme which involves the death of two of them under circumstances which will permit the third to claim credit for their destruction, thus earning him a royal audience during which the survivor can complete the assignment. But this rather straight-forward story is presented in a series of psuedo-Rashomon-syle flashbacks designed to explain the plotters' respective points of view but which only serve to slow the film's momentum without adding a single thump to the audience's pulse-rate.

Since this movie was made primarily for domestic consumption, it's American version, (11 merciful minutes shorter than the original) isn't helped by sub-titles that convey only the barest outline of the unfolding events without conveying any of the obvious subtlety contained in the actor's spoken words. What's happening is hard enough to decipher--why it's happening is entirely left up to increasingly annoyed conjecture.

Like Mahabharata, India's epic story of national birth, this film undoubtedly conveys a good deal more to audiences who can appreciate the film's historical roots and nuanced cultural references. For western audiences however, it remains an exquisitely- lensed study in obscurity. 


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