Ossus Library Index Non-Fiction Movie Index

THE FIRST EMPEROR OF CHINA

Directed by Tony Ianzelo and Liu Hao Xue (1989, National Film Board of Canada)
Narrated by Christopher Plummer

A history of how China's dynasty of Emperor's was first created.

 

 

2 stars

March 2nd, 2002 on the IMAX screen

 
    An interesting history lesson, but the absurd acting on the battlefield and the mono sound of the narration really hurt this film.

I found the history to be really interesting.  Because I know pretty much nothing about China in general and its history in particular, I was quite interested in what they were describing.  I liked the way the performances of this recreated history gave us a glimpse of the machinations of war and palace life.  

I knew nothing about seven small kingdoms in pre-Imperial China, at war for 500 years.  I wondered if the name "China" came from the emperor who conquered the smaller kingdoms and brought them together under a single throne.  Qin, I believe is how the name is spelled, but it is pronounced Chin.  Could there have been a genesis of a nation because of what this emperor did?  Unfortunately, it is not explained, so I do not know.  

Chin was king of his area of China.  As he conquered the other areas, they became more desperate.  One even tried to bring an assassin into his midst, disguised as a bearer of gifts.  That was pretty well staged, until the assassin actually struck.  The "duel" between him and Chin was pretty poorly acted out.

In fact, that is the major problem with this film.  It looks more like a Jackie Chan movie when we cut to fights -but an early one, without the good choreography.  Soldiers miss each other by huge amounts, and fall bloodlessly to the ground.  Overeager extras fall over before the sword even comes close to them.  It was cheesy and very funny to watch.  I don't think it was intended to be funny!  

The other major problem with this film is the mono sound that came with it.  Surely IMAX had stereo sound "back" in 1989.  The narrator was difficult to hear sometimes, and I don't think it was simply because of a worn-out audio track.  I did like the way he stopped narrating when the Chinese people spoke.  I don't understand the language, but anybody who did would have found the dialog interesting, I'm sure.  Instead, the narrator allows the dialog to go forward, and explains some things that happen afterwards, as if we could understand both English and Chinese.

I found it interesting to see how the Emperor changed things once he combined the lands.  Common currency, language, and market scales were just some of the reforms he brought about.  

Did I hear correctly that he had three hundred concubines?  He started to get greedy in his own Empire.  His tomb, possibly rivaling the Egyptian pyramids, was a huge endeavor.  Creating and painting his terra cotta honor guard must have been a scary feat -what if he disagreed a particular statue?  Would he kill the sculptor and find another?  

I also found his death to be interesting.  Obsessed with becoming immortal, he had his alchemists create potions that were supposed to keep him healthy.  So he took pills filled with small amounts of mercury!  By the end of the film, it looks like his chief alchemist was in league with the son who inherited the throne.  I wonder if he knew what he was doing when he was poisoning his Emperor?  He didn't hesitate to steal the heavenly seal and forge a new will, commanding the eldest son commit suicide and naming one of the others as heir. 

One big question I have about all this is where they found the information.  They make many inferences, like the mercury tablets and the fake will -how do they know the original will had the eldest son as heir?  In the film, it is burned.  And we are told that they never opened Chin's tomb.

The tomb was an impressive site once it was discovered.  Only found in the 1970s, by accident by farmers digging a well, it is massive.  The honor guard is still standing, though some look worse for wear!  All are being cleaned up and some are on display in a museum.  There is some really interesting history here.

The Emperor's heir brought war back to China, after only a ten year hiatus when Chin was in charge of it.  That is too bad -treachery always seems to come to the front when the good leaders die.  It is not displayed exactly how Chin was a good leader.  The fact that he put an end to war seems to suggest it, but certainly not conclusively.  And I want to know who his son went to war with, and why.  But I guess a good documentary forces us to look up the answers ourselves.

There is also a small subplot about an archer, who is inspired by the passing army.  He joins Chin's camp, and is promoted.  We see his progress, until he even gets a bride from the Emperor's court.  His likeness is sent into the tomb as part of the honor guard, a high ranking one, at that.

Interesting as it was, I do wonder why the film was presented on IMAX, though.  There were only a few moments that were truly spectacular enough for this large format.  I know that not everything needs to take advantage of the large screen, but normally producers try to maximize the effect.  Here, there were some large vistas of scenery, with the large procession of the armies, and the Great Wall also stretched for a great distance, but little else.  The other 90% of the movie could have been seen to good effect on a small screen.  And perhaps it would have been beneficial, because we could have had more information, even a two-hour special.  Still, what it did give us was quite interesting, and I may just have to look up the rest of that information myself.

 
   

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