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Fox Lorber Cinema (DVD), ASIN B00000JS6X

Be ready for this movie's intensity. Its characters accept multiple roles without abandoning individual agendas. When the emperor (Jiang Wen) drags his daughter's lover to be killed, the men remain locked in a death struggle. Two opposing geniuses meet here -- and neither can destroy the other without sacrificing all he holds "everlasting, immortal".

dvd: The emperor's shadow Sex also broadcasts all its steam and roar here in a fresh experience. The camera makes us participants, not voyeurs. We see the lovers' heads (Xu Qing, Ge You) coming at us, as we must if we identify with either one. Visually, the heads remain an interlocked double. Coupling also creates political ramifications, meaning unification, not random bounce and blow.

This film achieves pure inevitability. We follow the rise of China's first emperor, Ying Zheng, as a literate narrative. When banners rise in battle, we track imperial commands from utterance to consequence. With his every decision -- "When I smile, everyone smiles" -- we witness what can only be fateful words. This kind of economy occurs worlds away, in every sense, from high-tech fantasy.

This epic drama seems to exist because it MUST. It exalts lessons upon which human survival depends. It lets the dead talk to the living -- and not one of its dead-on speeches comes from a robot, a Shallow Hal, or a freak. It squanders no technology. It wastes no time. In other words, it originates in a highly disciplined, literate culture that bears no kinship to any society fixated on the frivolous.

Parallels breed familiar phases, however, marking the mythical founding of states both ancient and modern. To earn his place in our remembrance, Ying Zheng unifies his nation. Like King Arthur hacking away at Romans in Le Morte D'Artur (Everyman's Library: Book V, pages 130-51), this Chinese monarch obliterates all challengers. Can it be accidental that, although their political systems vary, red streams from American, British, Russian, Chinese, and Iraqi flags alike?

Claiming no fondness for history, director Zhou Xiaowen confessed to Augusta Palmer on indieWire that his initial purpose for making the film lay in fascination with Chinese archeology. In addition, he explained:

The other [reason he made the film] is that when I was growing up and becoming a filmmaker I found that everybody wanted to control others' souls, minds and spirits. Of course, it's impossible; but year after year everyone wants to do it. The first emperor wanted to do it. He had the most power at that time. Many Chinese rulers have wanted to do this -- for generation after generation. …That is very interesting to me. So the theme is that nobody's mind can be controlled. (The full text of the interview can be found at http://www.indiewire.com/people/int_Zhou_Ziaowen_981217.html.)





In this story, art derives from longing -- and pain -- that never surrenders. Even a national anthem celebrates a romance that cuts the imperial heart to the quick. Every sound sensitizes our ears to hearing the dead wail from under the ground. We may think they lie buried -- and out of sight. In China, it seems, the dead know how to speak.

Meg Curtis

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