This startling, sweeping epic interweaves Ying's heinous military activities with devotion to his eldest, beloved daughter, unable to walk after a fall from a horse. Her passionate love for Gao complicates her betrothal to one of Ying's best generals. Most perplexing, Gao refuses to cooperate with Ying, goes on a hunger strike and tries repeatedly to kill Ying. Made just before the reunification of Hong Kong with the People's Republic of China, The Emperor's Shadow suggests a ripe commentary on current politics. Carefully and cleverly written by Lu Wei (known for Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Zhang Yimou's To Live), the dialogue resonates with contemporary correlations, including insistence on art as a propagandizing tool in service to the state, Mao's inhuman practices, and feeble but necessary noncompliance.

Cinematographer Lu Gengxin delivers gorgeous widescreen compositions reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's Ran and Kagemusha. Soldiers on horseback and on foot mass for battle while the wind whips flags and dust. Advisors line up in neat rows as the king sits arrogantly nearby. This is a film about movement and momentum, stillness and resistance. Like a chess game, pawns are sacrificed as the king maneuvers to destroy opposition. Though most of the grotesque events take place mercifully offscreen, The Emperor's Shadow is not for the squeamish. Brilliantly acted with evocative music, it is for everyone interested in smart films that don't sugarcoat the brutality of the past or, by clear extension, of the present.

In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Opens March 12 at the Tivoli.
-- Diane Carson

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