hat excited me most when I approached this story was its characters. The characters in this story are people who left their mark in the annals of history. What I found during the discovery process is that although they lived two millenniums ago, these characters are not so different from us, they are not mere symbols, they are real people. These people lived at the dawn of Chinese civilization and had hopes and dreams of a bright future. But like us, they faced difficult choices: power versus freedom, war versus peace and love versus hate.
n assassin who made his living by killing others was able to recognize the wrong in killing through the power of love and rise against tyranny by sacrificing his own life. A woman who in her naiveté believed that kindness can stop bloodshed. A king who possesses an idealistic vision but then falls victim to the trappings of power and ambition only to lose all that he has loved. After several years I can say that I know these characters well, they are real to me. It is the characters themselves and their dreams and hopes that represent the spirit of this film.
aking such a film was a joyful experience.
seki had known for some time that Chen Kaige had been working on a script about the first Emperor of China. So, it was not a total surprise when he received it from Shirley Kao. He was also not surprised by the superb story Kaige and fellow scriptwriter, Wang Peigong had written. What did startle him, however, was the budget. After reading the script, it was obvious that THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN would be the most expensive Asian film ever produced. Iseki admits he wasn't totally convinced he could raise the funds needed to support the project but, "I promised her and Kaige I would try."
ealizing he had an Asian film with an American budget, Iseki's strategy was to attempt to pre-sell the film to several distributors. He reasoned it would be far more productive to try and find a few regional backers than one worldwide distributor. He sent the script to the companies he believed would be most interested in the film. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Although the offers were more than respectable for a Chinese film, they fell short of Iseki's, admittedly, lofty goal. The project appeared to be in serious trouble until Iseki was able to secure the initial investment from Nippon Herald Films, Inc. The ice was broken. Next, Daewoo, the Korean Company and China Star, the production and distribution company in Taiwan and Hong Kong, were brought into the fold while associate producer Sunmin Park succeeded on getting commitment from Sogepaq of Spain.
ith the Asian market now covered, Iseki now focused his attention on the European market, specifically the highly respected Le Studio Canal +. Daniel Marquet of Le Studio Canal + remembers it this way. "We all (at Canal +) read it (the script) and liked it very much. Then, some months later, I was in Japan meeting with Iseki and Hiro Furukawa of Nippon Herald. While I was closing a deal on a picture already in production, Iseki mentioned he was still looking for financing for THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN." With Japan and Korea already sold and AMLF, a French distributor, already indicating strong interest through its head, Paul Rassam, Le Studio Canal + was now prepared to make a commitment. Marquet was willing to invest in the project in return for the worldwide rights excluding Asia and North America. With a substantial portion of the funding in place, THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN was moving closer and closer towards becoming a reality.
seki's earlier experience in finding a United States partner had proved unsuccessful. Without an American distributor, the project basically had no future. Then came Cannes.
annes, 1997. Marquet was meeting with Michael Barker and Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics who had worked with Iseki on Akira Kurasawa's RAN and the Merchant Ivory team's HOWARDS END. Having just done business together (THIEVES with Catherine Deneuve), Marquet and the Sony Pictures Classics team began discussing future projects. Marquet remembers, "I knew Iseki was disappointed with his progress in the United States and that the situation was at a crossroads." Specifically, Iseki recalls how he was about to go to contract with an American distributor which backed out at the last minute. "I believe the sensitive business relationship American companies were having with the Chinese government may have caused them to think twice about becoming involved." In any event, Marquet brought up THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN. Barker explains, "Tom, Marcie (his other partner Marcie Bloom) and I have been huge fans of Chen Kaige ever since THE KING OF THE CHILDREN (1987). We strongly believe he's one of the finest film directors in the world." Marquet handed Sony Pictures Classics the latest draft of the script.
ecoming involved with the project didn't take much convincing on anyone's part. "At the root of Canal +'s interest is the great, passionate, triangle love story set against the historic birth of a nation," Marquet recounts. They also had one of the world's premier directors. From the very beginning, Iseki felt that having the Palme d'Or winning Chen Kaige attached as director, was the project's prime selling point. And finally, they had a magnificent cast headed by the incomparable Gong Li. Barker declares, "Gong Li is a great movie star and we feel this (the part of Lady Zhao) is the ultimate role for her."
fter reading the script, Sony Pictures Classics met with Marquet eager to participate. Then, Barker adds, "in a very short period of time...a fifteen minute meeting...we made a deal." For contributing their share of the budget, Sony Pictures Classics acquired the distribution rights for all English speaking countries including: North America, The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and the countries of Southern Africa. Added to the funds obtained earlier from other investors like Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co. Ltd., the pieces of the financial, pre-sell jigsaw puzzle were finally in place.
fterward, there was a good deal of praise among the players. From Michael Barker: "It's a great international partnership in support of a great director." Daniel Marquet concurs: "We all know and respect each other. That's why all the pieces fell into place."
urmounting great odds and rebounding, more than once, from what appeared to be defeat, Satoru Iseki and Shirley Kao finally put the deal together. With THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN becoming the first Asian film ever to secure a completion bond (First Australian Completion Bond Company), the financing was assured. The torch now passed to Chen Kaige to transform his remarkable vision to the screen.
n charge of production design, Tu Juhua created the blueprints and drawings for the reconstruction of the ancient cities of Qin, Yan, Zhao and Han. He also provided the plans for both the Xianyang palace and Handan castle. For the making of THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN, the Xianyang palace was reconstructed in its entirety in the city of Dongyang in Zhenjiang province. Much of the film, including the final scene, was shot there. It is now being preserved as a theme park drawing large numbers of tourists. In addition, the capital cities of the other kingdoms featured in the film, Yan Zhao and Han, were constructed as several sights across China. All have been meticulously built to scale with special attention paid to their historical accuracy. In Yixian, in Hebei province, the city of Xianyang, complete with its temples and commercial and residential buildings, has been rebuilt, along with the Yan capital and the home of Jing Ke.
he Handan castle was erected in Zhuozhou for the filming of the invasion and the subsequent destruction by fire of the conquered city. Additional scenes depicting the infernos consuming both Handan castle and the city of Xinzheng were shot at the People's Liberation Army film studios.
he staging of the battle sequences between the forces of Qin and its enemies, Han and Zhao, also proved to be a major logistical feat. Shot on the Bashan plateau, bordering Inner Mongolia, these dramatic scenes involved the coordination of thousands of horses, chariots, stunt people and extras. Huilui was chosen as the site for the exterior shots of the Zhao countryside, while Shidu, southwest of Beijing, served as the location of the Jing Ke's fateful farewell at the Yishui river.
esurrecting the ancient crafts of China also fell on Tu Juhua's responsible shoulders. Despite the instability of the times, Qin society was one of great prosperity and technological innovation. In order to recreate the cultures unique to the Qin, Han and Yan kingdoms, Tu Juhua sifted through an enormous amount of historical material, compiling detailed lists of everyday objects found among both kings and commoners of the period. Having completed this intensive research, he then began carefully crafting replicas of these objects. Painstaking accuracy was used in reproducing the era's unique instruments of war, including swords, chariots and riding equipment. Tu maintained the same rigid standards in his skillful duplication of the ornaments found in the royal palaces, the King's throne, bronze ceremonial vessels, lanterns, goblets, jewelry, musical instruments and bamboo writing tablets. Whenever possible, the traditional elements of crafting these objects were utilized. The black flag of the Qin kingdom, for example, was weaved and dyed using precisely the same technique employed by the Tibetans over 2,000 years ago.
he task of reproducing the costumes for the production was undertaken by the renowned designer, Mo Xiaomin, whose work is synonymous with the term costume design as art'. Mo Xiaomin spent two and a half years visiting historical ruins, collecting vast amounts of information and reading over 100 specialized texts before officially accepting Chen Kaige's offer to create the costumes for THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN. During the early planning stages, there were continuous consultations with the director and thousands of preliminary sketches made before Mo decided on his final 400 designs. THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN'S costumes are the culmination of four years of continuous labor and the pinnacle of Mo Xiaomin's celebrated twenty year career as a designer.
n the history of Chinese cinema there has never been a production quite like THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN. For sheer size, cost and authenticity, THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN has become the new benchmark in the making of historical epics. Few will ever match this extraordinary film achievement.