The Qin king has long been obsessed with conquering China and becoming her first Emperor, which makes him the target of three legendary assassins. Now, a nameless warrior claims to have defeated them all and recounts each confrontation for the king.

Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”

I bet this movie would only be forty-five minutes long if it was played at normal speed: This may be the slowest film Stanley Kubrick never made. Mainland China's understandably patriotic response to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," this film seems to steal liberally from that 2000 landmark, but of course that film stole liberally from earlier wuxia flicks, so what we're seeing is refinement of refinement. That suits the theme of the film, as the characters themselves progress through levels of enlightment as the plot repeatedly transcends itself. The film did exceptionally well in China both critically and commercially, and since it is so determined to contrast itself against Ang Lee's masterpiece, I don't mind saying that I enjoyed it less, though not by much. By comparison, its action sequences are poorly blocked for the camera and take for granted the defiance of gravity instead of using it to enhance the message, and its star-crossed lovers never seem like more than tools of the plot (though that's appropriate since we usually only see them through other characters' flashbacks).

I didn't expect much of this film, and the first half-hour is a vacuous mess. But gradually the characters emerge and the tale takes on deeper signficance, and by the end it has done an excellent job of contrasting several different meanings of patriotism, and the action sequences have been triumphant exercises in excessive style. Not one shot in the film lacks careful consideration, and the rain-soaked courtyard and scroll library wll etch themselves in your memory. It might have been a better film if it had freed itself of its inferiority complex over "Crouching Tiger" and stopped imitating that paragon of the genre... but then again, maybe not?

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