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 period setting.
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.
Optional 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 choice.