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During its ’90s boom, Chinese cinema has offered both spectacle and intimacy, but usually not in the same package. Only Zhang (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern) Yimou has consistently sketched moving human stories on the grand canvas of Chinese locations and pageantry. Despite its sweep, Zhou Xiaowen’s The Emperor’s Shadow is no challenge to Zhang. The film is frequently dazzling, but its impact is mostly pictorial, not emotional.

This comes as a surprise, since Zhou’s previous film was anything but epic: Ermo, the tale of a village noodle-maker who decides to improve her status by purchasing a TV, took a peasant-eye view of the contradictions of semi-capitalistic contemporary China. The Emperor’s Shadow, however, is set more than two millennia earlier, during the attempt of King Ying Zheng (Jiang Wen) to conquer all of China’s independent fiefdoms and declare himself the nation’s first emperor. It’s a story that lends itself to shots of massed armies, raging rivers, and vast structures. Indeed, the movie opens with views of the Great Wall.

Fundamentally, though, this is the story of two men: Ying Zheng and Gao Jianli (Ge You) were suckled by the same woman, Jianli’s mother, who served as a wet nurse for the other infant, a royal hostage from Qin. Jianli grows up to become a master of a stringed instrument (confusingly, also called qin), while Prince Zheng is his biggest fan. The two have little else in common, however, once Zheng returns to Qin to begin his quest to unify China under his control. Jianli refuses Zheng’s entreaties to become the king’s court composer and write his anthem. Then Zheng’s troops brutally conquer the musician’s homeland and brand all the defeated men on their foreheads to indicate that they henceforth will be slaves.

Zheng is outraged to learn that Jianli has also been branded and that the humiliated musician, rather than beginning work on the emperor’s anthem, has decided to starve himself to death. Music must express “divine virtue,” not imperial ambitions, Jianli declares, and Zheng’s “cruelty makes heaven weep.” The emperor’s response is the classic edict from politician to artist: “Stick to music,” he says.

Then Princess Yueyang (Xu Qing), the emperor’s favorite daughter, intervenes, persuading Jianli to eat and drink. The two become lovers, infuriating her father. As much as Zheng wants Jianli to write his anthem, the emperor won’t alter his plans to secure a political alliance with his daughter’s wedding. Even emperors don’t always get their way, however, as has already been revealed by the movie’s prologue, in which the aged Zheng orders musical instruments dumped into a torrent and bans music from his empire.

The psychological conflict between Jianli, Yueyang, and Zheng ranges awkwardly from stylized to naturalistic, perhaps because Jiang Wen plays the emperor as altogether more modern than his daughter and the musician. Zheng is in some ways more appealing than the petulant Jianli and pampered Yueyang, although evidence of the ruler’s cruelty is widespread: The Emperor’s Shadow is soaked in blood, and not just from battle. With beheadings, brandings, torture, and human sacrifice all among the emperor’s crowd-control techniques, the film finds ample precedent for Tiananmen Square.

Such modern parallels are easy enough to draw, with Zheng comparable to several ruthless 20th-century dictators who studied the power of art to inspire the masses. Yet the film remains a little too much the period piece, in part because its modern relevance is undercut by plot developments that are folkloric and (in one case) outright miraculous. Although the film’s violence is horrific and ultimately futile—Zheng’s hard-won empire lasted only 15 years—it also seems distant. The Emperor’s Shadow vividly commands the screen, but exerts less dominion over the mind.

Director and co-writer Susanna Styron’s Shadrach is named for a 99-year-old ex-slave who in 1935 walks from Alabama to Virginia so he can die at his birthplace. Don’t expect to learn much about the man that his new acquaintances call “old Shad,” though. The film isn’t about him, and it isn’t really even about the Dabneys, the now-impoverished family whose prosperous forebears sold Shadrach (John Franklin Sawyer) to new owners in the Deep South. The film’s voice and sensibility are those of Paul (Scott Terra), a middle-class 10-year-old who’s a semi-autobiographical version of novelist William Styron, the tale’s original author (and the director’s father).

To Paul, Shadrach and the Dabneys are equally exotic. Paul is an only child in an immaculate household where the family dresses for dinner, while the Dabneys are a sprawling clan whose male offspring don’t even bathe—although pa Vernon (Harvey Keitel) and ma Trixie (Andie MacDowell) look reasonably tidy. Paul plays marbles with the youngest Dabney boy and worships the youngest Dabney girl, who turns out to be one of only two people (the other is Paul) who can understand Shadrach’s hoarse whisper.

In addition to being dirty and uncouth, the Dabneys are moonshiners—which makes it improbable that Paul’s upright, well-pressed parents would leave their boy with the family while they travel to a funeral. They do, though, so that Paul is perfectly positioned to be the narrator when Shadrach unexpectedly arrives.

The old man wants to be buried in Dabney soil, a request that Vern finds inexplicable. (So will many viewers.) Nonetheless, the family obligingly takes Shadrach to the old family plantation, now gone to seed and useful mostly as a suitably remote location for the family still. Once they’ve arrived there, however, the local sheriff informs Vern that interring Shadrach in the old slave burial ground would be illegal. His body must be prepared by a “licensed colored undertaker” and buried in a “colored churchyard”—which would violate Shadrach’s last wish, of course, and also cost the Dabneys the princely sum of $35. Vern is outraged, and he rages in language both coarse and racist.

Still, Shadrach is one of those gentle tales in which everyone, despite living in a deeply abhorrent system, is fundamentally decent. Vern may be a racist, and Trixie may be an alcoholic, but they’re not about to abandon Shadrach—a man they just met—merely because they can’t afford to bury him according to the dictates of the Commonwealth of Virginia. As anyone who’s read As I Lay Dying knows, such Faulknerian broods will go to outlandish trouble to do right by a corpse.

If Sawyer’s Shadrach is little more than a plot device, both Keitel and (surprisingly) MacDowell turn in vivid, nuanced performances. Too bad Styron and producer and co-writer Bridget Terry didn’t trust their performers more by cutting back on the obtrusive narration (by Martin Sheen as the adult Paul). She was astute, though, to enlist Van Dyke Parks to compile the soundtrack. His selection of gospel and country-blues standards—”Farther Along” is the movie’s musical motif—does more to place this small tale in Old Virginny than do the low-lying North Carolina locations or the clip from a Stepin Fetchit movie.

Another parable of a boy’s first encounter with death, The Mighty is more typical of contemporary cinematic attitudes. The two central characters, Max (Elden Henson) and Kevin (Kieran Culkin), share physical abnormalities that make them outsiders in school. Another link is equally important: They’re both the progeny of bad fathers.

Oversized and allegedly unintelligent, Max lives with his spooky but well-meaning grandparents, Grim and Gram (Harry Dean Stanton and Gena Rowlands), in a downscale Cincinnati neighborhood. Then Kevin, a smart but feeble peer with a glamorous, warmhearted mom (Sharon Stone), moves in next door. (Kevin has the exemplary Hollywood disease, one whose unfortunately fatal but impeccably metaphorical outcome will be for “his heart [to get] too big for his body.”) The two are adversaries at first, but soon become pals. On the basis of Kevin’s enthusiasm for Arthurian legend, the boys begin to seek chivalrous adventure.

This scenario, scripted by Charles Leavitt from Rodman Philbrick’s children’s novel Freak the Mighty, bears a remarkable similarity to The Cure, a sticky 1995 flick in which the weaker boy has AIDS, the glamorous, warmhearted mom is Annabella Sciorra, and the boys’ quest is to find a cure for the disease. The Mighty was directed by British eccentric Peter (Funny Bones) Chelsom, though, so it’s darker and stranger than The Cure, which was the work of thirtysomething veteran Peter Horton. It’s not dark and strange enough, though.

Kevin tells Max that together the boys make one person, a knight he dubs Freak the Mighty: Kevin’s got the brain and Max the brawn. The movie seems to accept this insulting premise, and it sends Kevin out on Max’s shoulders to rescue damsels in distress and tangle with the local junior high school gang, the Doghouse Boys. At times, Celtic music swells and actual knights on horseback appear, just as if the boys had actually transported themselves into medieval Britain—or into The Fisher King, another ’90s movie that pureed Arthurian myth into New Age bean dip. Kevin’s mother is even named Gwendolyn, which is close enough to Guinevere for Cincinnati.

Kevin’s father vanished for good, but Max’s bad dad (James Gandolfini) is up for parole—which worries Grim and Gram and brings Max unwelcome flashbacks to a dimly remembered crime. When the elder Kane arrives, Freak the Mighty must best his most diabolical foe. He does, of course, but at a terrible cost. So terrible, in fact, that it’s hailed with a Sting ballad—the final blow to Chelsom’s previously distinctive sensibility in this deeply conventional film.CP