China, circa 200 BC: it's an unfamiliar setting for most Western
viewers, but one with an enormous capacity for impressive
storytelling. China is divided into a handful of kingdoms, each with
its own ruler and its own particular regional culture. It would take
a very ambitious and ruthless man to unite these kingdoms into one
empire, but that's exactly what Ying Zheng aspires to. The
Emperor's Shadow gives us an insider's look into Zheng's world,
with its mix of high culture and horrific barbarity, as he
methodically sets about getting exactly what he wants. Only one
person seems unwilling to obey Zheng: his childhood friend from
another kingdom, Gao Jianli, now a renowned musician.
In retrospect, the story of The Emperor's Shadow is the story
of the personal conflict between these two characters: one dynamic
and aggressive, the other defensive and reticent. Zheng has all the
resources of his army and his growing empire, but in Jianli he finds
that force cannot make someone think, feel, or act in a certain way,
if he has the will to resist.
I say "in retrospect," because as The Emperor's Shadow
develops, it's far from evident where it's going. There's no
narrative thread or sense of a plot unfolding; we're just watching
things happen without really seeing how they relate to each other.
This lack of narrative drains away a lot of the potential power of
the film; if we don't have any sense of where the story is headed, we
can't develop any sense of anticipation, and we can't really get
involved in what's going on. The descriptive blurb on the back of the
DVD claims a tried-and-true story of star-crossed lovers as the core
of the film, but in fact this element in the film is so minimal as
barely to register as a sub-plot.
The Emperor's Shadow is a film that's either too long or,
paradoxically, too short. With the story as it is, there's not enough
narrative to sustain interest through two hours and ten minutes.
However, a considerable part of the problem is that we don't have
much sense of who the two protagonists are, or what their
relationship is. Sure, we know that Zheng is the would-be emperor,
and Jianli is a composer, but that tells us nothing about their
relationship: why Zheng is obsessed with Jianli, or why Jianli
resists him, or why Zheng reacts to Jianli's resistance as he does.
If the film had taken the time to establish these figures as real,
believable people with depth to their personalities, the whole story
could have taken on a new and richer dimension.
In my mind, a comparison to the excellent Hero is inevitable,
and it's in this comparison that The Emperor's Shadow comes
off weakest. Hero takes up very similar content and some of
the same themes, but in terms of storytelling flair, narrative
interest, and accessibility to a Western viewer, it's significantly
better; Hero soars while The Emperor's Shadow plods.
That's not to say that The Emperor's Shadow is a total loss.
The historical setting is truly fascinating, and while I don't know
enough of the period to judge its accuracy, the film certainly has an
atmosphere of realism and attention to detail, from the scenes in the
privacy of the emperor's court, to the masses of assembled soldiers
on the move. I also suspect that viewers with more context for the
story, and its basis in history, may find the narrative to be more
engaging than I did. The Emperor's Shadow is a slow-moving
film, and one that lacks a "hook" for the viewer, but it is
certainly watchable, especially for those with an interest in the
The Emperor's Shadow is presented in its original 1.85:1
widescreen aspect ratio; unfortunately, it has not been
anamorphically enhanced. The transfer offers respectable image
quality nonetheless, with a natural-looking color palette, good
handling of contrast, and a reasonable level of detail in the image.
Some edge enhancement is present, and is more noticeable in some
scenes than in others; there are also a number of print flaws that
appear off and on throughout the film.
English subtitles are available, and appear in easy-to-read white
lettering. The subtitles are placed on the actual image, not below
it, so viewers with widescreen televisions will be able to use the
"zoom" feature (to eliminate the windowboxing effect of
this non-anamorphic transfer) without cutting off the subtitles.
The Mandarin Dolby 2.0 soundtrack handles the demands of the film
quite well. Some of the more dramatic scenes, such as those with
masses of soldiers, would have benefited from a 5.1 mix, but on the
whole the audio experience is satisfactory. Dialogue sounds clear,
and the music and environmental effects are also distinct. Optional
English subtitles are available.
The only special features on this DVD are filmographies, a list of
production credits, and a trailer for the film.
A historical epic of ancient China, The Emperor's Shadow
offers a richly textured look into the culture of the first emperor.
It's a slow-moving film, one that doesn't provide much narrative
structure or character development, but it's watchable, particularly
if you're interested in the period. Fox Lorber's transfer of the film
is reasonably good but, given the lack of anamorphic enhancement, not
as good as I'd have liked. I'll suggest this as a decent rental