The Emperor's Shadow (1996)

Directed by
A beautiful intimate epic
Reviewed by Simon on 2024-03-03

As infants Ying Zheng and Gao Jianli suckle at the same teat, Gao's mother being the wet nurse for the infant Qin Prince. Qin is invaded and young Ying Zheng nearly loses his head, but a last minute change of political winds restores him to royalty, and at the age of 13 he is crowned king. Meanwhile, Gao pursues his artistic inclinations and grows up to become a celebrated composer.

Years later, Ying Zheng has turned Qin into the most powerful kingdom in China and set his eyes on conquering his remaining rivals, uniting the country as its first emperor. He sends for his childhood friend to compose an anthem for the new nation.

The film is epic in scope but intimately focused, telling of the birth of an empire and the tumultuous hearts of two men in the same breath.

THE EMPEROR'S SHADOW came out two years before The Emperor And The Assassin, but both were released on DVD at about the same time so I saw them more or less back to back. Chen Kaige's film got all the attention, but for me this was the better film.

Revisiting it these many years later I am even more impressed, perhaps mature enough now to fully appreciate the tale it tells, and the rich performances of Jiang Wen and Ge You (and Xu Qing for that matter).

It's beautifully filmed with sumptuous production design and a very cinematic aesthetic... and an absolute bitch of an ending.

It seems to have been largely overlooked despite being able to stand proud besides other Chinese films of the era that are more celebrated. Due for a reappraisal, I think.