Two very different films from Asia open this month: one is a panoramic view of China's imperial past; the other, a tender vision of Tibet's exiled religious community living in the mountains of Bhutan.
A 2,000-year-old society springs to life in The Emperor and the Assassin, director Chen Kaige's epic drama about the reign of China's first emperor, Ying Zheng (246-210 b.c.), whose ferocious military skills and relentless campaigns of terror united seven warring kingdoms under a central government. Ying Zheng thought big: his monumental building projects included the beginnings of the Great Wall and the imperial tombs near Xian, where he was buried not far from an army of thousands of terra-cotta soldiers.
Chen, whose credits include Farewell My Concubine, knows a bit about larger-than-life personalities. His Ying Zheng is a childlike creature, driven mad by a lust for absolute power. Only Lady Zhao, his childhood love — played by the ever-luminous Gong Li — crosses him and survives. (Replicas of the royal palaces where their love bloomed and faltered are now part of a theme park in Dongyang, a city in Zhejiang province.)
Another sort of journey leads to Chokling Monastery, in the foothills of the Himalayas in remote Bhutan. Where others might see a busy religious institution, the Bhutanese director Khyentse Norbu — who is also a high lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition — saw the raw material for his first feature, The Cup. The monks play themselves in this simple yet subtly affecting story about a cheeky young novice who practically moves heaven in order to watch the greatest game on earth, the last match of the World Cup.
Low-budget filmmaking in Bhutan posed certain challenges. "The nearest place for cheap camera rentals is in Australia," Khyentse Norbu says. "You have to fly the equipment in and drive seven days over mountains." But being a high lama can work to a filmmaker's advantage. "I just said I had to do this," he admits, "and all the monks did as I wished." —Leslie Camhi