The Emperor and the Assassin 

Famed Chinese director Chen Kaige (Temptress Moon) takes on nothing less than the story of Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), the king who fought to unite China into one empire in the third century B.C. This is a beautiful-looking film, with breathtaking cinematography by Zhao Fei, and it has an appropriately grand, almost Shakespearean, sensibility. It's also slow and frequently confusing, with characters switching loyalties -- and personalities -- so quickly, the audience almost needs a scorecard. Luckily, one of those characters is played by the wondrous Gong Li (Chinese Box), who can express her innermost thoughts with a mere glance. Like most overwrought spectacles, The Emperor and the Assassin could do without three or four of its subplots and a few battle scenes, but it is a stylish primer on China's mythic early history. (R) Rating: 7

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