Every nation has its own creation myth, something that illuminates our understanding of how a country sees itself, and the emergence of China as an economic superpower in the last couple of decades has prompted some cinematic consideration of how it came into being. Notable among these movies in recent years was Jet Li's Hero, which featured some wonderfully staged action scenes -- it was a Jet Li movie, after all -- but was also troubling to Western and democratic sensibilities with its seemingly pro-totalitarian bent.
Hero, though, was preceded a few years by 1998's The Emperor and the Assassin, and one hopes that this version of China's creation myth doesn't really show us how that country's citizens and artists think of themselves -- because it is super twisted.
Long story short: Li Xuejian plays Zheng Ying, the King of Qin who in 221 BC united all of China's disparate kingdoms under one empire. He's the Chinese George Washington, only if George Washington had a frothing bit of Macbeth in him, sprinkled with a twist of Hitler: Even at the outset he's clearly insane -- and as the movie progresses, it becomes clear he'll do anything to consolidate power: Murder his own family members, wipe out all the children of a city, and destroy entire families at a whim. But he manages a moment of clarity early on, describing China as he will one day rule it with kindness and wisdom.
His lover, Lady Zhao, is played by Gong Li, who is one of the most beautiful actresses ever to appear on screen anywhere in the world at any point in cinematic history. (I wanted, during the movie, to call her Lady Rowwwwr.) She is so moved by Ying's promise to benevolently rule a unified China that she has her face branded, part of a plot to create a pretext for Qin's invasion of a neighboring kingdom, Yan. But she changes her mind when she sees Ying's dark side, and plots with a reformed assassin to kill the king.
We know from history that Ying did become the first emperor of China, and thus we know what becomes of the plot. But still, something buzzes throughout the movie: This is China's creation myth! And it's full of double-crosses, palace intrigue and deaths to fill two or three Shakespeare plays! We're apparently supposed to take it as a given that the unification of China was a worthy thing -- and if you're a Chinese moviegoer watching this, that may well be a given. The rest of us, though, are left aghast at the horror of it all. Put it this way: I've never seen a movie with so many dead children on screen.
China's movie industry is not known, for obvious reasons, for its subversiveness. But there might be a hidden message in all of this. Lady Zhao is so moved by the king's promises of benevolence, food, safety and even good roads for all that she deforms her own visage to enable Ying's military adventurism ... only to find his bright vision similarly deformed by the awful task of acquiring power. A lesson learned: Never, ever trust the king.