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With his last film, the opium-dazed Temptress Moon, Chen Kaige damaged his reputation as the stodgiest of China’s Fifth Generation directors. Much of the credit for that movie’s verve and fluidity, however, must go to cinematographer Chris Doyle, who’s best known as the lens of writer-director Wong Kar-Wai’s delirious vision. Chen’s The Emperor and the Assassin finds the director back in full stodge, telling the story of China’s first emperor with a grandiosity not seen since, well, The Emperor’s Shadow, Zhou Xiaowen’s treatment of the same historical figure, which showed at the AFI in 1988.
Even those with no interest in Chinese history probably know something about Ying Zheng, the man who conquered all the fiefdoms of central China in the Third Century B.C.E. He’s the emperor who outfitted his massive tomb complex with an army of terra cotta warriors (a few of which were displayed at the National Gallery last year). The Emperor and the Assassin and The Emperor’s Shadow are in agreement about the savagery of Zheng’s campaign to unify China, although Shadow renders the brandings, beheadings, and human sacrifices more vividly. Both films feature an intimate drama as well as sweeping scenes of bloody battle and imperial splendor, and that’s where they diverge: Whereas Zhou constructed a triangle among Zheng, Zheng’s daughter, and one of the emperor’s childhood friends, the three sides of Chen’s inner story are Zheng (Li Xuejian), Zheng’s mistress, Lady Zhao (Chen regular Gong Li), and retired assassin Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi).
Lady Zhao is not merely Zheng’s lover. She’s also a savvy tactician who proposes that Zheng justify his invasion of the kingdom of Yan by faking an assassination plot and blaming it on Yan. After she leaves Zheng to play her role in the plot, however, the would-be emperor uncovers some information about his parents that drives him into a heedless rage. Zheng breaks his pledge to Lady Zhao, undertaking an especially cruel campaign in which children are brutalized. In reaction, Lady Zhao devises a genuine assassination attempt, enlisting Jing Ke, who abandoned killing after being touched by the plight of the daughter of a family he butchered. The killer has become more noble than the king, and to complete the transference, Lady Zhao falls in love with Jing Ke.
The film contains a few small-scale scenes that are riveting, notably those recounting Zheng’s prickly relationship with epicene courtier Changxin (Wang Zhiwen), who is secretly the queen dowager’s lover. Still, such moments are inevitably overshadowed by the monumental battle scenes, which reportedly made The Emperor and the Assassin the most expensive Asian movie ever. The spectacle is not inappropriate to the man who created what was then the largest empire ever seen on Earth. And the story of the megalomaniacal dictator who kills wantonly for a great cause is by no means irrelevant to contemporary China. Still, too often Chen’s pageantry is impressive purely in scale. Ultimately, Chen’s movie seems to accept the worldview of its ruthless protagonist: Bigger is better.
“Make me one with everything,” goes the punch line of a popular lama gag, and the first film ever written and directed by an actual lama—Khyentse Norbu, who’s considered the third incarnation of a 19th-century Tibetan Buddhist saint—tells a similar joke. For the Tibetan-emigre monks and students of The Cup, the path to unity with the universe is the World Cup, the sports contest that (despite its relative unpopularity in this country) comes closest to having global appeal.
Norbu’s modest—and modestly appealing—comedy begins on a political note: The abbot (Lama Chonjor) of an isolated Buddhist monastery in India is concerned about the status of two refugees who are expected from Tibet; Geko (Orgyen Tobgyal), the monastery’s strict but humane enforcer, reassures him that they will be all right. But the focus of the story quickly shifts to Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro), the 14-year-old ringleader of the monastery’s football—soccer to you—cult. After befriending new arrivals Palden (Kunsang Nyima) and Nyima (Pema Tshundup), Orgyen leads them surreptitiously to a bar to watch Brazil play Argentina. The excursion is not a success, however, and Geko catches the AWOL monks sneaking back into the monastery.
Orgyen is not easily discouraged, and with the final game approaching he attempts an ever bolder gambit: He asks Geko if he can rent a TV and satellite dish so the entire monastery can watch. To Orgyen’s surprise, Geko agrees. Then the issue becomes raising enough money to rent the motley rig from a hard-bargaining Indian merchant and getting it set up in time for the game. In the process, of course, Orgyen learns a small lesson about priorities.
Based on a true story, The Cup was filmed simply (and none too prettily) in Bhutan, using actual monks who had no acting experience. Most of them don’t speak English, so Norbu and his largely Australian crew had the monks learn each scene before shooting it. The director himself, however, is no cinematic innocent. His credits include serving as a consultant on Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. Norbu discovered film while studying in London, becoming a devotee of Yasujiro Ozu, Andrei Tarkovsky, and—most important for The Cup—Satyajit Ray.
Like most people who grew up recently in rural areas, the 38-year-old Norbu watched his first movies on a TV screen, which may explain his film’s benign view of television. The Cup could be said to humanize Tibetan monks by transforming them into couch potatoes, a metamorphosis every American can understand. There’s no irony to the monks’ celebration of TV’s power to bring a game being played in France to their remote monastery. Norbu clearly believes that mass-media distractions can be enjoyed in moderation by people who have self-discipline and a profound philosophy of life, but then satellite TV arrived in India only a decade ago. The Cup II may well turn out to be a horror movie. CP