THE FIRST EMPEROR OF CHINA Directed by Tony lanzelo and Liu Hao Xue
The timing was extremely unfortunate. The première of The First Emperor of China, a cinematic spectacle about the leader who unified China 22 centuries ago, was set to coincide with the gala opening of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que., on June 29. Coproduced by the museum, Canada’s National Film Board and Beijing’s Xi’an Film Studio, the $6.7-million, 40-minute movie was filmed in the oversize format known as IMAX. And it seemed an ideal showpiece for the huge hemispheric screen of the museum’s theatre—linking the institution’s birth and the NFB’s 50th anniversary. But the June 4 Beijing massacre, which tragically changed the course of Chinese history, turned the planned première into a political embarrassment for Ottawa. To avoid publicly embracing a country whose actions it had
recently censured, the federal government decided not to show the film at the opening. An IMAX movie about Canada geese was hastily substituted. Last week, the museum unveiled The First Emperor with less fanfare. Yet it still resonates with a crude, unintentional irony.
The First Emperor—not to be confused with The Last Emperor, which swept last year’s Oscars—cloaks ancient tyranny with a romantic mystique. But after the recent events in Beijing, the cruelty it portrays no longer seems safely enshrined in the past. The movie chronicles the life of Qin Shihuang, the feudal warlord who created the first central Chinese government in 221 BC. His accomplishments are impressive. With 700,000 slaves, he completed the Great Wall of China. He created a common currency and written language. And, with a pharoah’s foresight, he had 7,000 lifesize terra-cotta soldiers, horses and chariots built to surround his tomb. Unearthed in 1974, they were captured on film by Westerners for the first time in the NFB movie.
Although Qin remains a revered figure in China, he was savagely intolerant. Early in the film, one of his political opponents is shown spread-eagled on the ground, about to be tom apart by horses tethered to his four limbs.
Other scenes show books being burned in a massive literary inquisition and Qin’s soldiers burying alive hundreds of dissident intellectuals. But such sequences are awkward asides in a movie more inclined to praise Qin than to bury him. Trading on the emperor’s grandeur, the movie attempts— in the IMAX tradition—to elicit a sense of awe. Qin’s court becomes a sea of red silk; thousands of soldiers march in a column that snakes across a vast landscape.
Yet, despite the unparalleled sense of scale offered by the IMAX camera, the movie lacks flair. The camera itself scarcely moves. The bloodless battle scenes—flat pageants of horses’ hooves and clashing swords—recall Hollywood’s early biblical epics. And the actor portraying the emperor (Bo Guan Jun) employs an operatic style that offers few clues to Qin’s character. In fact, the Chinese coproducers, protecting Qin’s mystique, were at first reluctant to show his face in the movie. And now, with China’s doors closing, it may be some time before that country gets a big-screen glimpse of its ruthless founder.
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